The performance tonight at Lisner of Dvorak's opera "The Jacobin" is apparently the first fully staged production in the United States -- or, for that matter, almost anywhere in the West.
And like the other neglected Czech operas performed here in recent years, it would not have occurred without the almost slavish determination of a 77-year-old-woman, Lida Brodenova, and her Sokol Opera Company.
Antonin Dvorak's operas are virtually unheard -- and for the most part unheard-of -- outside the opera houses of his native Czechoslovakia. This seems baffling, since Dvorak's position as a symphonic and chamber music composer has never been more secure in just about any musical country. But far worse even than the plight that once befell the operas of Berlioz, the Dvorak stage works languish in obscurity on the international scene.
Thus the intrepid efforts of former Czech singer Brodenova to stage some of the operas by Dvorak and other Czech composers carry special importance. During an interview last week at her cozy home near American University, the widowed teacher of voice and piano seemed at first almost apologetic about her efforts. "I guess I am insane, but if so I'm very insane. And I'm just as stubborn."
Over the years, she has produced on a shoestring two versions of the Czech folk tale, "Rusalka": one Dvorak's resplendent work and another by the composer Dargomyzhsky. Dvorak's "Peasant Rogue" came several years ago as well. Also there has been "The Kiss" and the "Two Widows" by Bedrich Smetana, as well as his "The Bartered Bride," the one Czech opera with a bare foothold in the international repertory.
All these have been sung in Czech, with local singers, and -- as tonight -- with moonlighting members of the National Symphony in the pit. To bring them off, however, considerable price has had to be paid in techincal and interpretive finish.
"If only we could polish our work, what a difference it would make," she says. "The 'Jacobin' production is a typical example. Our only performance, on Sunday, will be the only time we will get all the forces together in costume. It is, of necessity, our dress rehearsal. The 45 persons in the orchestra will have been able to read through the parts only once before. But I have been working with the singers for some time, here in the studio."
She places on the record player a Czech recording of 'Jacobin' (from the National Theater in Prague). There is a noble bass aria and an impassioned love duet for soprano and tenor. It sounds very much what you would expect of its composer in 1888, a year after his most famed chamber music work, the A-major piano quintet, and a year before the premiere of his 8th symphony in G-major, one of the lyric marvels of the orchestral repertory.
"This is the most difficult opera we ever did," declares Brodenova. "The music is like a symphony. And there are three different choruses in the second act, a big chorus, a children's chrous and a middle chorus. The second act, in particular is a gem." (The opera is in three acts, and had to be cut down to three hours for this performance, to save paying overtime to the orchestra.)
None of these performances would have occurred without Brodenova's initiative. She had over 30 years of performing and listening in Czech and Austrian opera houses before she and her husband, an engineer, came to the United States in 1940. She has no idea how many times she has heard "Jacobin," but is doubtful that many others could match that number. Most of her childhood and early career was spent in Brno, where her father played in the Austro-Hungarian army band. During her schooling the head of the Brno conservatory was Leos Janacek, the most eminent Czech composer since Dvorak.
"After my husband died I was never afraid to fill his shoes as a producer because, listen, I know so much. I know all these works from childhood. It is like photography in my mind. And sometimes I even improve them," she says. Since her husband's death 10 years ago, she has put together seven productions here almost entirely on her own wits.
After leaving Czechoslovakia for New York (her husband was Jewish) the Brodenovas encountered many of the career problems that faced wartime East European emigres from day-laborers to the late Bela Bartok himself. "At one time or another I sang in every important hall except the Metropolitan itself." Her scrapbooks -- with reviews, photos and programs -- show that New York's center of Czech musical activity was Sokol Hall. Her husband had an even harder time, until he finally settled here in the early '50s with the Voice of America.
Brodenova wants to expand the audience for Czech opera, but has had little luck fundraising. "We tried for grants with the foundations and the National Endowment, but they would not give us money for music unless it was American. I pointed that Dvorak lived in the United States soon after this opera, but it did no good.
"So I had to get out my list and write to all the Czech patrons we had developed over the years. And Husa [the conductor and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who teaches at Cornell] agreed to conduct for free."
The budget is only $8,500 and the largest contribution was Mrs. Brodenova's own, $1,000. Among the individual contributors this time were former Nebraska Sen. Roman L. Hruska, conductor Rafael Kubelik, pianist Rudolf, Firkusny and former singer Jarmila Novotna, who now lives in Vienna.
As to the continuing obscurity of the Dvorak operas, Brodenova attributes it to difficulties of singing in Czech. It was a subject much debated in Dvorak's own time. The eliment Viennese critic Edward Hanslick was convinced that Dvoark should write in German, a language in which he was fluent. And during Dvorak's period in the United States there was recurring talk that an operatic "Song of Hiawatha" and an "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was on the way. But despite the composer's interest in American themes, nothing came of either project.
Another solution is to translate the Czech into English, which is what the Metropolitan did for its revival of Smetana's "The Bartered Bride" last season. Brodenova hestitates to do this. She thinks the key to making these works effective on the stage, is to preserve the "Czech spirit, down to the small details."
She saw the Met's "Bartered Bride" three times and gets no satisfaction from its success. "I finally wrote them a letter that it was so wrong," she relates. "Did you see the way they dressed Marenka like a maid? She was no servant. And they had people going into the fields with spades on a feast day. The Czechs were not beggars, after all. They were not like that. The Czechs are not like the Russians, you know."