Extract from Dvořák Society Newsletter 94 (January 2011)
Abigail Toland is an opera producer currently working with the innovative British company Second Movement. For Dvořák Society Newsletter 94 (January 2011), Abigail contributed the following article about Second Movement’s production of the Martinů one-act opera The Knife’s Tears (H 169), which the company performed in London, Brno and Prague —
Young UK opera company Second Movement explores Martinů rarities at home and in the Czech Republic
In the summer of 2007, Second Movement staged the UK première of The Knife’s Tears by Bohuslav Martinů in an old banana warehouse in the heart of London’s Covent Garden. The Knife’s Tears, one of Martinů’s Paris period jazz chamber operas is an unusual piece. With a libretto by leading French surrealist Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, the plot in this dada-esque vignette, revolves around the love of a young girl for a hanged man. The score, suffused with jazz influences rattles with energy and our young cast of Yvette Bonner as Eleanora, Hannah Pedley as Mother and Jonathan Brown embraced its idiosyncrasies and enjoyed it to the full. Martinů is justly celebrated in the UK for his later operas, but his jazz inspired surrealist works are little known. We were unsure what our audiences and critics would make of The Knife’s Tears, although we were confident of the work’s many merits and excited to be bringing it to British audiences for the first time. We presented Martinů’s opera in a triple bill of chamber pieces. Performance companions were the wonderful and brooding Rothschild’s Violin, composed by Shostakovich’s pupil Benjamin Fleishman with performance score completed by Shostakovich on Fleishman’s tragic death during the siege of Leningrad, and an updated take on Offenbach’s miniature Les Deux Aveugles. We presented the Martinů in a new English translation, and were delighted that audiences and critics alike enjoyed the work and responded with enthusiasm.
We were fortunate in 2007 to have the support of the Martinů Foundation, and with their encouragement, and that of the International Martinů Circle, the Dvořák Society and a number of other Czech music supporters both in the UK and the Czech Republic. Second Movement has continued our explorations of Martinů’s early Paris era operas. In August this year, as a prelude and preview of our planned full production of the UK première of The Three Wishes, we presented some scenes from this fantastical full length chamber opera at the Riverside Studios in London as part of Tête à Tête: the Opera Festival 2010. Again we were delighted by the appreciative audience response to Martinů’s music and Ribemont-Dessaignes’ conceits, and are looking forward to unveiling the entire work for British audiences in the near future.
Last Autumn, scenographer Pamela Howard, who has been a faithful supporter of our Czech work, invited me to attend her English language production of The Marriage at the Mozart Sál of the Reduta in Brno. Having never been to the Czech Republic, and keen to see more of Martinů’s chamber opera work in live performance, I made the trip to Brno via a 24 hour stopover in Prague. The Mozart Sál was beautiful, the production a delight. Pamela had suggested that while in Brno I should meet with Pavel Drabek, a lecturer at Masaryk University and Artistic Director of a young opera company called Ensemble Opera Diversa, as she had a feeling Second Movement and EOD might have interests and ideals in common. I had a drink with Pavel after The Marriage, and we talked of the possibilities for exchange and collaboration between our two companies. I was delighted that less than a year later, with the support of the Martinů Foundation, the Czech Ministry of Culture, the Cities of Brno and Prague, and the National Lottery through Arts Council England, our plans, sketched out in Pavel’s notebook, bore fruit. On the weekend of the 30th and 31st October we performed our 2007 production of The Knife’s Tears’ in the composer’s homeland, our original cast and creative team working with Ensemble Opera Diversa and their orchestra in the realisation of the performances.
Martinů: The Knife’s Tear’s
Yvette Bonner as Eleanora, Jonathan Brown
as Satan, Hannah Pedley as Mother
Following a week’s intense rehearsal in London we performed The Knife’s Tears three times in two venues in two cities — in Brno at the Mozart Sal where I had seen The Marriage, a beautiful red walled baroque room and in Prague at DISK theatre which is a hidden gem tucked away in a little street by Charles Bridge. We were aware from our 2007 performances of The Knife’s Tears that the stark surrealism and sexual content of the text can be challenging, but were pleased that the Czech audiences received the work with great enthusiasm. The orchestra sparkled and the cast delivered their demanding roles with aplomb on a set that had been recreated with exact detail. The partner pieces premièred by Ensemble Opera Diversa, Ela, Hela and Hitch-hiking and The Demon Pumpkin in the Vegetarian Restaurant were joyous and irreverent, showcasing fine original compositions and performing with verve. The performances were a wonderful experience for all involved, and we have made many lasting friends.
Second Movement and Ensemble Opera Diversa hope that these Brno and Prague performances of our joint triple bill will be the first in a series of exchanges and partnerships between our two companies, and other young European opera organisations. Next March will see a conference hosted by EOD for the founding members of ECHO, the European Chamber Opera Project, which will include companies from Slovakia and Austria, and we hope this will lead to more performances and projects in the spirit of cultural exchange and celebration of chamber opera.
Second Movement would like to thank Ensemble Opera Diversa for their energy, commitment and vision in making this triple bill of 3 Modern Czech Chamber Operas happen, and for providing us with a unique opportunity to show our interpretation of Martinů’s vibrant and startlingly original Knife’s Tears to Czech audiences. We would also like to extend our thanks to the Dvořák Society for their continued support and Ray Latham for his wonderful web pages on our Czech performances.
Producer, Second Movement
About The Knife’s Tears
In 1928 Martinů composed his second opera — the one act The Knife’s Tears (H 169) — whilst living in Paris. The libretto was written in french and was based on a play by Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, Les larmes du couteau, which is also the french title of the opera. In Czech it is known as Slzy nože.
Ribemont-Dessaignes (1884 – 1974) was a French writer and artist associated with the Dada and Surrealist movements. The editor of the Surrealist review Bifur, he was a significant artistic figure in inter-war Paris. When Martinů met him, some of his novels had appeared in Czech translations and his Dadaist plays had been staged in Prague .
The libretto deals satirically with themes of love, promiscuity and sexual rivalry between mothers and daughters. Although this was a period when traditional values were often challenged, there were powerful conservative forces at work too. So it is perhaps unsurprising that the original plan for a performance at the 1928 International Society for Contemporary Music Festival in Baden-Baden was not realised, although to be fair to the Festival jury the practical challenge of staging some of the composer’s fast-paced theatrical effects may have weighed as heavily as the nature of the text. In the event, the opera had to wait until 1969 for its première in Brno.
Martinů’s opera includes elements from popular music of the day but is also influenced by Stravinsky and the French group of composers known as “Les Six”. However, the piece is much more than the sum total of its influences. In its use of unreality, not to say its use of an accordion in its instrumentation, it looks forward to the opera Juliette (H 253). In his 1975 biography Martinů, Brian Large wrote “… Martinů produces an outrageous extravaganza which is at the same time a model of musical conciseness and instrumental sensitivity. The colour and sound achieved by the 15 players is remarkable.”
For more facts about the opera and a stimulating essay by Aleš Březina, please visit the Martinů Foundation [Nadace Bohuslava Martinů] web database.