Gotham Chamber Opera

Where opera gets intimate.

Twelve years after their wonderful production of Larmes de couteau and Hlas lesa, the Gotham Chamber Opera has prepared another double bill of one-act operas by Bohuslav Martinů. Once again they present one French and one Czech opera, but now we are treated to the comedic side of the Czech composer.                 

By the mid-1930s, Martinů had been living in Paris for over a decade, drawn to the French avant-garde and incorporating jazz, Dada, and the surreal into his works. Yet his major successes were happening back home in Czechoslovakia where he still returned every summer. This duality is at the center of Martinů’s music during the 1930s. His ballet Špalíček (1932), based on Czech folk tales and songs, premiered in Prague, and the opera Hry o Marii (1934) opened in Brno and won the state prize in 1935. That same year, Czechoslovak Radio commissioned Martinů for a one-act radio opera, resulting in Hlas lesa. Its success led to a second commission and the composition of Veselohra na mostě [The Comedy on the Bridge].

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Veselohra na mostě is based on the play by the great Czech playwright Václav Kliment Klicpera (1792-1859). The simple staging and condensed action made it perfect for radio, and Martinu had to make relatively small changes to adapt it to an opera. After the original broadcast on March 18, 1937, it was set aside until years later when Martinů was living in New York City. Having fled France in the spring of 1940, Martinů called the US home from 1941 until returning more permanently to Europe in 1953.

 

With a new and welcoming audience in NYC, Martinů saw Veselohra na mostě premiered in a staged English version as Comedy on the Bridge on May 28, 1951. It was a rousing success and despite it being composed over a decade earlier, it was declared “Opera of the Year” by the New York Music Circle.  Full of Martinů’s characteristic charm, the opera has remained one his most popular and widely performed works.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While in Paris, Martinů collaborated with many of the avant-garde artists of the time, including Dadaist Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes and surrealist Georges Neveux.  In 1937, Martinů was looking to write a short comic opera for the upcoming World Exhibition and had his friend Miloš Šafránek, cultural attaché at the Czech embassy, seek out a libretto. Šafránek contacted the author André Wurmser (1899-1984), the surrealist who would later go on to be a prominent Marxist journalist. The two met to produce Alexandre bis (Twice Alexander), a comedic opera about marriage in which a role was reserved for an oil painting (though Martinů would’ve preferred a cat). The opera and its music evoke opera buffa and  the world of Lully, Rameau, and Offenbach, blending dialogue and recitative with clearly defined scenes. Yet the ludicrous plot and neoclassical harmonies could only come from 1930s Paris and the unique voice of Bohuslav Martinů.

For more information on Martinů, consult the website of the Bohuslav Martinů Foundation: 

www.martinu.cz 

--- Robert Simom

Robert Simon is the Chairman of the International Martinů Circle and Music Librarian at the University of Notre Dame.

photo 1 credit Richard Termine

photo 2 courtesy of the Centre Bohuslava Martinů in Polička." 

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