Cher Public

Metamorphoses

No one else seems to have pointed it out so I may as well do so. Leos Janacek composed Adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears, with its singing forest creatures of many species (birds, bugs, frogs and primates as well as foxes—the current production of the Manhattan School of Music Senior Opera Theater even has singing birch trees), in 1922-23.  At that very time, Karel and Josef Capek, were writing The Insect Comedy, in which ants are militant fascists, beetle-eat-beetle types are the bourgeoisie, and butterflies are flighty aristocrats. 

Karel Capek went on to write allegorical science fiction about robots (a medieval Czech term) and about newts, and at the same era in Prague, Franz Kafka was writing Metamorphosis and “Josephine the Singer” (which concerns opera among mice). Rival forms of life thronged the new multinational republic.

This came to me at the second of Manhattan School’s four fine performances of Vixen, which runs through Sunday. The opera is given in an English translation by Norman Tucker and an orchestral reduction by Jonathan Dove. Janacek constructed his melodies on Czech speech patterns but Tucker’s English usually sounds idiomatic.

You’ve never met foxes who didn’t talk just like this, have you? And the dog is eloquent about his wish to sing lieder, which his human master does not appreciate. There are jokey references to feminism and social rebellion—the badger driven from his lair is an aristocratic emigré. I could have done without talk of the operas that would be written about the adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears—real heroines (other than singers) don’t perform brave deeds in hopes of getting themselves into an opera.

The production, by the program’s director Dona D. Vaughn, boasts great but far less pretentious charm. There is much focus on movement, for which all the animal singers are game, and John-Mark Owen’s elaborate choreography deserves credit for much of the evening’s delight: The natural creatures of the forest naturally slip into Slavic folk dances to express their joie de vivre.

The performance also gets a lift from the winsome costumes by Summer Lea Jack—it’s not always clear what species a given singer is portraying (Woodpecker? Dragonfly? Cricket? Owl?), but the colors are gaudy and the gestures suitable. Of course hens (in yellow wigs and lofty heels) knit while sitting on their eggs—why didn’t I know that? And of course Czech vixens have peasant patterns sewn into their fur. So obvious when you know.

The Dove reduction of Janacek’s score struck me as more appropriate to the light touch of the opera than the full-symphony treatment that Alan Gilbert gave it with the New York Philharmonic a couple of years back. Under Manhattan School’s Jorge Parodi, the MSM orchestra provided a string-light but elegant accompaniment, with happy clarity from the harps for the zing of insects and sure, romantic sweep for the great Vixen-Fox love duet in Act II.

The Thursday and Saturday cast starred a Heeso Hon, a delectable actress with fine lyric line and the enduring humor in adversity that a fox’s grin expresses. Her voice rose easily to harmonize with the Fox of Sarah Brownawell, a mezzo of enviable power. Janacek was parodying Wagner with this lovely music, but I was eager to hear the pair handle the conclusion of Rosenkavalier.

The opera is given in the Ades Performance Space, which is small-ish for a theater but sizable for a classroom. The young voices bloomed in it. I was especially charmed by Marie Stumpf’s Dog, William Huyler’s Parson (a bass voice of real character), Christian Thurston’s Haraschta the Poacher, and Andrew Jurden’s Forester.

Janacek, famously, requested that the conclusion of this opera, the music that accompanies the Forester’s revelation of the cycle of death and rebirth in the wood and the world, be played at his funeral, and it was. But to this footnote, I think it a mistake to append, as this production did, the Forester having a fatal heart attack at that moment.

Photo: Brian Hatton, courtesy Manhattan School of Music