Guide From Brno – The UNESCO Creative City Of Music: Opera

2 April 2020, 1:00

Guide From Brno – The UNESCO Creative City Of Music: Opera

“Every theatre is a madhouse, but opera is the ward for the incurable,” claimed Franz von Dingelstedt, the first director of the Court Opera House in Vienna. And he was right, for once someone’s fallen in love with opera, that’s it. Opera’s a stepchild of the Renaissance, with a Baroque wet nurse: it was on the cusp between these two great eras that the idea of purely sung theatre saw the light of day. Step by step, composers taught the art of singing to classical gods and brave women, Christian heroes and pagan enchantresses, a Seville barber, a Babylonian king and the Czech Mařenka and Jeník. But it was only here in Brno, thanks to Leoš Janáček, that truly psychological musical drama was born, drama that sees into a person’s heart. Today the Brno opera company has its home in a theatre named after Janáček, mounts a major festival devoted to the city’s most famous composer every two years, and has set its sights very high. “The more opera is dead, the more it flourishes,” pronounced the philosopher Slavoj Žižek when speaking of this fanatically loved but just as fanatically rejected genre. By this measure, opera in Brno these days must have been dead at least a dozen times.

From Tavern to the World of Opera

Most projects in Bohemia and Moravia begin their life in pubs. On the site of today’s Reduta theatre there once stood the Theater in der Taffern, and it was there that the first opera performances in Brno took place. Among the earliest was Domenico Sarro’s Didone abbandonata. In 2014 the local Opera on the Move gave a revived premiere of the work in today’s recently refurbished Reduta. In the intervening period, much had occurred: among other things, the Brno opera company had acquired a theatre boasting the largest stage in the Czech Republic, named after Leoš Janáček. The world premieres of all of his operas but one, The Excursions of Mr Brouček, had taken place in Brno.

The outstanding conductor and Janáček specialist Jaroslav Vogel once remarked that Jenůfa is The Bartered Bride in a minor key. This witty comment also makes the less obvious point that Janáček enjoyed  a similar position in Brno to that of Smetana in the country as a whole. But for a long time Janáček was regarded from outside as a local oddity, until his oeuvre was introduced to the world first by Max Brod and much later by the conductor Charles Mackerras (1925–2010) and the musicologist John Tyrrell (1942–2018). The former recorded Janáček’s operas for Decca, the latter was the preeminent Janáček scholar. The Czech translation of the first volume of his definitive biography of Janáček,  running to around one thousand largeformat pages, was published in 2018 by the

One City, German and Czech Opera Companies

For a long time opera in Brno mirrored the relations between its Czech and German speakers. The first operas in Czech appeared around 1840, among them Žižkas Oak, by the Brno composer František Kott. The years when Czech operas scraped along in the German theatre ended with the establishment of the Czech Provisional National Theatre in 1884. This came two years after the opening of the new German Stadt theater, today’s Mahen Theatre the first Central European theatre fully lit by electricity.

prodana_nevesta_1977_archiv_NdBA 1977 production of The Bartered Bride. Photo: NDB archives

After the creation of independent Czechoslovakia in 1918 the municipal theatre came into Czech hands, and the Czech and German companies agreed to alternate there. The most distinguished head of the opera company in the interwar period was František Neumann (1874–1929), a workaholic who in addition to intensive staging of operas by both Czech and foreign composers also introduced concert cycles. 


Ivo Váňa Psota was another newcomer to Brno in the interwar period, first as ballet master and, later, head of the ballet company at the National Theatre in Brno. It was thanks to him that the premiere of Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet took place in Brno.

Neumann was the first eminent personality to enjoy the height of his career in Brno; many others began here and then moved on. Among them was the worldfamous heroic tenor Karel Burian (1870–1923), who made his debut in Brno in 1891, as did his younger colleague Leo Slezak (1873–1946) four years later.

Magdalena Kožená’s debut was also with the Brno opera. The famed Maria Jeritza (1887–1982) was born in Brno, though she never sang as a soloist here. The early careers of several conductors played out in Brno, among them Rafael KubelíkVáclav Neumann and Zdeněk Chalabala. Another great era for opera occurred from 1953 to 1978 under František Jílek (1913–1993).

magdalena_kozena_Foto_MCSH BrnoMagdalena Kožená. Photo by: MCSH Brno

Opera in the Theatre, on the Stairs and at School

In the course of the quarter century he was active in Brno, Jílek raised opera standards here to the highest level. He devoted  much time to Janáček (hardly surprising), but also to the work of Bohuslav Martinů definitely not a given under Communism, as Martinů was still regarded with suspicion as an emigré. Jílek also conducted ballets and among other things shaped a ballet form for Capriccio for Cello and Orchestra by Jan Novák (1921–1984). A brilliant Brno composer, Novák later emigrated; in the past twenty years his work has been enjoying a renaissance. His cousin Richard Novák is a Brno opera legend, still singing at the age of eightyeight.

Novák’s compositions are favourites with Brno’s Ensemble Opera Diversa, which launched itself by staging minioperas on the stairs of the Spolek café, gradually developing into a stable yet flexible chamber ensemble with original operas and musical compositions in its repertoire.

In 1957, on the initiative of the director Miloš Wasserbauer (1907– 1970), the JAMU Chamber Opera was formed. It carried out its projects in today’s Barka Theatre, but in 2012 acquired a new space, the Theatre on Orlí. Hausopera, a group focused on sitespecific productions, launched its activities in 2018 with an opera set in a swimming pool.

A Fairytale about Thirteen Bosses and One Festival

After Jílek’s departure opera fell into eclipse, and the situation only worsened in the period of turbulent change following 1989. For a long time people still looked back nostalgically to Václav Věžníks stirring Communistera production of Nabucco, with its theme of longing for freedom. But the main feature  of opera in Brno post 1989 was instability: between 1991 and 2014 the company ran through no fewer than thirteen heads. Calm, and a sharp and rapid rise in standards, only came with the appointment of Martin Glaser as head of the National Theatre and Jiří Heřman as head of its opera company.

festival_janacek_brno_polska_inscenace_jeji_pastorkyne_Foto_Magdalena_OskoThe Janáček Brno festival guest company staging of Jenufa. Photo: Magdalena Osko

Their greatest success so far has been the biennial Janáček Brno festival, whose quality they improved so markedly that it won in the “Festival of the Year” category at the prestigious International Opera Awards competition. Both men were present to accept the prize at the awards ceremony in London in April 2019. 

Josef Pančík: Attaining Excellence Through Concert Singing

By definition, an opera theatre must have a chorus. So here we turn to the superb choir master Josef Pančík, who enjoys the reputation of having created the best opera chorus in the Czech Republic, and indeed one of the best in Europe.

”For me, the miracle of the Brno chorus lies in how Pančík manages to maintain its high standards,” says the bass Richard Novák when speaking of his longtime colleague. “The chorus is the most sensitive element – newcomers to the chorus are fresh out of the conservatory, they don’t know anything, they have a bit of a voice, and then they listen. And they absorb techniques and become one with the chorus. The body of the chorus is renewed over the course of twenty years, but its spirit remains one and the same.”


The main strength of the Brno opera chorus has always been its cultivated expression, which Pančík has maintained by, among other things, creating a concert repertoire. Opera choruses often mask minor shortcomings behind the noise of the orchestra. Pančík’s chorus knows how to sing demanding compositions without an orchestra, as a purely concert group.

But the opera chorus in Brno has a long tradition both Leoš Janáček and his teacher Pavel Křížkovský were accomplished choirmasters. The father of the modern choir tradition in Moravia was Ferdinand Vach (1860-1939), who founded the Moravian Male TeachersChoral Society unquestionably the country’s most famous men’s choir. Janáček, known for his highly critical comments, wrote of Vach “I dedicate to him not one, but all of my choral works.”

The concert counterpart to the opera chorus is the Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno, founded and led by Petr Fiala. Kantiléna is an outstanding choir for children and young people.

In Brno alone more than sixty groups foster choral singing, a figure that doesn’t include church choirs; a list of them all, with short descriptions of each, would fill a book one still waiting to be written.



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The Janáček Brno 2020 International Festival promptly replaced yesterday's Hungarian performance of the opera Salome by Richard Strauss. Instead of the guest appearance, the National Theatre Brno offered a concert programme under the simple name Orchestra of the Janáček Opera. After a long time, the audience could see the musicians who normally remain hidden inside the orchestra pit. In addition to the orchestra, which was conducted by Robert Kružík, the violinist Josef Špaček and the pianist Miroslav Sekera also appeared. The programme clearly consisted only of the works by Leoš Janáček, and since the originally planned performances can no longer be staged in the ever-tightening quarantine environment, the evening at the Janáček Theatre meant a farewell to the festival as such. The last live concert of the Janáček Brno 2020 festival is today's performance of the Brno Philharmonic in the Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in Old Brno.  more

Sunday afternoon was marked by another concert of the Janáček Brno 2020 festival. Chamber music performed by the Josef Suk Piano Quartet was given space in the Mozart Hall of Reduta. This ensemble (young both in the year of its founding and its age composition) prepared a truly beautiful and diverse programme for its visit to Brno, and presented it to the audience with adequate commitment.  more

Despite the unpredictability of the coronavirus situation, the Janáček Brno 2020 festival opened yesterday at the Janáček Theatre in Brno. The gala opening of the festival featured a premiere of the opera Destiny by Leoš Janáček directed by Robert Carsen, one of today's praised opera directors.  In fact, Brno audiences had the opportunity to get acquainted with his directing visions of Janáček's operas already in the past; Carsen's concepts for The Makropulos Affair and Katya Kabanova rank among the best that have appeared on the stage of the National Theatre in Brno in recent years. However, the production of Destiny at this year's Janáček's festival is even more exceptional, as this time the director created it directly for the Brno opera house. The costumes were designed by Annemarie Woods, while the stage design was created by Radu Boruzescu. Philip Sheffield (old Živný) and Enrico Casari (young Živný) played the roles of the composer Živný; his fateful love Míla Válková was portrayed by Alžběta Poláčková and her mother by Natascha Petrinsky. Peter Račko performed the role of Dr. Suda, Jan Šťáva was the painter Lhotský and Lukáš Bařák gave his voice to the character of Konečný. The music production is the work of Marko Ivanović, who also conducted the premiere yesterday.Destiny is often described as a problematic opera with a confused story and an imperfect libretto.  more

Let us hope that Sunday's concert to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the great music band of the Brno-based Valášek Children's Ethnographic Ensemble (Dětský národopisný soubor Valášek) will not be the last event that ever-changing government regulations will allow. And even if that, God forbid, was the case, it would be a dignified farewell.  more

For the end of this summer, the National Theatre Brno prepared a children's opera, written by the composer Evžen Zámečník under the title Ferdy the Ant  (original Czech title: Ferda Mravenec), based on the story by Ondřej Sekora. The stories of an optimistic ant who "can do anything and knows everything" and doesn’t turn his nose up at “work of all kinds", however, are actually not appearing at the Janáček Theatre for first time. Zámečník's work in eight scenes won the hearts of the Brno audiences between the years 1977 and 1986 with astounding success; it helped bring a number of children to opera – the most refined form of musical theatre. Today, these already adult musicians, actors, directors, lighting technicians and many others have decided to pay tribute to the composer, who also carried out a lot of "work of all kinds" for Brno's musical life.  more

The municipal council of Velká nad Veličkou decided already in mid-April that this year's Horňácké Festivities (original name: Horňácké slavnosti) would not take place on the traditional dates around the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, and their scope, previously meant to be of three to five days, would also be modified. Obviously, it was impossible to foresee the development of lockdown measures towards the third week of July, but musicians from the Horňácko district tried to come up with at least a partial alternative solution in order to maintain continuity. Eventually, two concerts were officially held on two consecutive Saturdays:  On 18 July,  live broadcast of a public radio recording of Czech Radio Brno under the title Hrajte že ně, hrajte aneb Horňácké trochu jinak (Play for Me, or Horňácké Festivities in a Slightly Different Fashion) took place at the Culture House in Velká nad Veličkou. A week later, at a sports complex in Javorník, a traditional competition for "the biggest expert on Horňácko peasant songs" was held under the auspices of the Horňácko Dulcimer Band of Libor Sup. Needless to say, both events have found their spectators and listeners.  more

The Brno-based rock band Kulturní úderka (which translates loosely as "Culture Brigade"), led by singer and guitarist Štěpán Dokoupil, did not keep its fans waiting for too long this time. While there was a fifteen-year break between their first and second albums, the new album Black Metall was released less than two years after the previous album Sarajevská Katarzija (Sarajevo Catharsis). The name of the new album must be handled with care. Úderka has never had anything to do with black metal as a music genre. And once again, we are treated not to metal, but to relatively raw rock, which in some moments is pleasantly softened by the keyboard of Omer Blentič, or the trumpet of their guest artist Jan Kozelek.  more

Cultural life has endeavoured to move into a sterile and "life-safe" social networking environment in an unequal struggle against the viral phantasm and government lockdown regulations. In the darkest months, music institutions competed with one another in staging recordings of memorable concerts, and major opera houses broadcast to the world those of their performances that gained the most success from spectators.  more

Shortly before the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, the Brno-based group Plum Dumplings released a new album. As opposed to their official debut L'épitaphe des papillons (The Epitome of Butterflies, 2014), sung in French, the band went for Czech lyrics this time. We are talking to the band's vocalist, who presents herself as Adéla Polka.  more

Oldřich Veselý, a Brno-based singer, composer and keyboard player, died in January 2018. In February 2019, the 10th Brno Beatfest, dedicated to his memory, took place in the Semilasso music hall. And a year later, a CD recording of this concert was released under the title Malý princ [The Little Prince], complemented by several bonus items.  more

On the twenty-fourth of May of this year, five days before her ninety-second birthday, Mrs. Anna Kománková passed away – and with her departed her particularly extensive songbook of ballads (not only) from the Javornicko and Horňácko districts, which she had always carried in her head. She was able to perform all the songs conserved in her memory in a distinctive and inimitable style. All her life she safeguarded the rare legacy of her ancestral heritage – all the more interestingly because she did not write down the hundreds of often complicated tunes and many dozens of verses and variants of ballads, but she knew them all by heart. Even after she reached the age of ninety, when she no longer enjoyed good health and did not perform in public, she remained in contact with the Javornický ženský sbor [Javorník Women's Choir], which she had revived and eventually led for many years. She never pushed herself forward anywhere, while at the same time she learned a lot from the skills of her ancestors: apart from singing (dozens of songs from the hymn-book  and hundreds of folklore songs) she was an excellent embroiderer: She sewed and embroidered with her own hands every part of the folk costume she wore.  more

The Brno Contemporary Orchestra, conducted by Pavel Šnajdr, concluded its ninth season with a concert called Con certo: With Certainty or with the Devil?, held in the hall of the Convent of the Merciful Brethren. The programme featured works by authors already established in the world of contemporary classical music: Alexej Fried, Olga Neuwirth and György Ligeti, whose violin concerto was performed by the violin virtuoso Milan Paľa.  more

When pronouncing the name Jiří ‘moravský’ Brabec (1955-2018) (the name is partly a pun referring to a typical Moravian dish called "moravský vrabec", which is pork roast with braised cabbage and  dumplings – translator's note), anyone, who until recently had any business concerning the Czech-Moravian folk and country scene, is reminded of the unmistakeable figure of a mighty man wearing a beard, with a strong voice and an inexhaustible source of information, and an enviable general knowledge of not only the above-mentioned music genre. We are speaking here about a complicated but deservedly respected personality who was able to surprise us with his knowledge in a number of disciplines, but also with his self-deprecating humour and unexpected physical dexterity. Unfortunately, for the last time he surprised people around him with his sudden departure, only a few days before his sixty-third birthday in June 2018, almost unnoticed by the public media, for which he had worked for so many years.  more

Electronic music, big beat and clubbing go together - but that’s only a small part of the truth. In fact electronic music was here long before clubbing, and thanks to enlightened teachers at JAMU it was doing very well indeed in Brno as early as the 1960s. That is, long before synthesizers and sequencers appeared on rock podiums, long before any old band had a computer, long before the first dance parties in glittering halls and dark cellars. Today electronic music is one of music’s most omnipresent genres: neither dance parties nor contemporary operas can do without it. Electronic big beat music has occupied reggae and swing, remixing is a daily affair, Brno artists have learned to sell instruments they built themselves to the whole world and to amplify an old knitting machine. As early as 1907 the composer Ferruccio Busoni dreamt of the future potential of electronic music, but not even his imagination and genius could have anticipated what Thaddeus Cahill’s first weird experiment with an immense electrical organ would lead to one day.  more

After Easter, an official statement that ruined every folklore lover's day appeared on social networks and in the media. The folklore festival in Strážnice will not take place this year. The reasons are well known to everyone. Yesterday, another wave of coronavirus lockdown easement began, and this was not the only reason why we talked to Martin Šimša, director of the National Institute of Folk Culture (NÚLK) in Strážnice. Well, is there really a reason for mourning? What can we look forward to in the immediate future? And when is the best time to visit the castle park and the open-air museum in Strážnice? These questions, and not only these, will be answered in the following interview.  more


The Janáček Theatre, which is part of the National Theatre Brno and hosts the Brno opera and ballet ensembles, is celebrating 55 years of its existence. The operation of this theatre began on 2 October 1965 with a performance of The Cunning Little Vixen by Leoš Janáček.  more

The church concert of the Ensemble Opera Diversa was originally supposed to present Ondřej Kyas' oratorio Stabat Mater; due to the current situation, however, the production of this work will be replaced by a purely instrumental performance of other compositions. The new programme will feature MacMillan's Seraph, a concerto for trumpet and strings with Vít Otáhal as the soloist, and Arvo Pärt's Festina lente with Dominika Kvardová playing the harp. The concert will be complemented by instrumental works by Ondřej Kyas and Ľuboš Bernáth with the Czech premiere of a rarely performed piece - Summa by Arvo Pärt. The concert will be conducted by Gabriela Tardonová.  more

The situation in the Czech club scene has been alarming for a long time now. Music clubs, which were the first to close in the first wave of the coronavirus crisis, are now facing serious existential problems. Without state aid to the cultural sector, there is a threat of absolute bankruptcy in the coming weeks.  more

The Moravian Philharmonic Olomouc is now entering its 75th concert season, which will begin with music by the Czech composers Antonín Dvořák, Bohuslav Martinů, Iša Krejčí and Marek Keprt. The last of them wrote a composition directly for the Moravian Philharmonic. The orchestra will play it tonight under the baton of the chief conductor Jakub Klecker, with the pianist Ivo Kahánek appearing as a soloist. The concert will be broadcast live by Czech Radio on its Vltava station.  more

The Brno Philharmonic is preparing one global and one Czech premiere for this week. However, there will be one change to the programme: as opposed to the original one, Mozart's Symphony No. 32 in G major will be played instead of the previously announced composition Angels of Sorrow by Giya Kancheli. Furthermore, works of Josef Haydn and Kurt Schwertsik will be featured; the latter will attend this premiere in person.  more

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the New York Metropolitan Opera will not start the season until January of the following year. Traditional cinematographic broadcasts will now make use of the Met's archive. In the autumn, three classic works of Italian opera and one bonus screening are planned.  more

The musical evenings entitled Zdenek Merta u klavíru v Městském divadle Brno ('Zdenek Merta Playing the Piano at the Brno City Theatre') are continuing. The concert to be held in October promises Ondřej Pivec as a guest – a pianist, composer and winner of a American Grammy Award for 2017.  more

With the upcoming Janáček Brno 2020 festival, dummies of Leoš Janáček with his dog Čipera started to appear in the streets of Brno. A QR code is placed on each of the dummies, which, after scanning, will play a sample of his works.  more

Metronome Blues are sending their album Garden Of Eden out into the world. They will release it in their domestic Kabinet Múz (Cabinet of Muses), where they will also present their new line-up. Garden Of Eden is the fourth serial album of the band Metronome Blues. It was released digitally in the spring of 2020 during "lockdown" in New Zealand. Its vinyl version will be released in October by the Brno label Kabinet Records.  more

Hausopera will present two short operas connected with important functionalist monuments in Brno. The performances will take place in the 'Zemanova kavárna a cukrárna' ('Zeman's Café and Confectionery Shop') and in the 'Knihkupectví Michala Ženíška' ('Michal Ženíšek's Bookshop'). The venues, well-known to everyone, will appear in a new light and context during the opera shows. Jiří Nekvasil undertook the directing of both pieces.  more