„I feel sorry for her,” Varvara sings in the first act of Janá?ek’s sixth opera Katja Kabanowa. And this feeling of compassion with a psychically-tortured woman could be a motto of many of his operas. Most of Janá?ek’s operas deal with individuals oppressed by socially determined facts and conventions, and if they try to resist it often brings fatal consequences.
Janá?ek decided to musicalize The Tempest (Bou?e) by Ostrovský probably around the beginning of 1919. It was not surprising that he chose a Russian theme, as Janá?ek was a cofounder of the Russian Circle in Brno, loved Russian culture and often found inspiration in Russian literature. As soon as the question of using a translation by Vincenc ?ervinka was resolved, Janá?ek started working. He adapted the whole drama by himself. The première of the opera took place in November 23, 1921, in the National Theatre in Brno under the baton of František Neumann. Almost one year later on November 30, 1922, Katja Kabanowa was staged in the National Theatre in Prague, conducted by Otakar Ostr?il. The success was immense, even though reviewers pointed out, that “the crucial mistake was that the opera did not have a fast flowing story”. In 1927 Janá?ek decided to resolve the connections of individual scenes in the first and second acts by changing the score. He added short interludes into both acts that made it possible to rebuild the scene without interrupting the music flow and thus to interconnect individual scenes. They were restored by Sir Charles Mackerras, who also put them into the newly-published score of the opera.
Katja Kabanowa represents an intimate and lyrical example of a lonely human being and a personal tragedy with no empty or pathetic gestures. It is a story which may be happening even today to our neighbours. This may be why this work still appeals to us, and thanks to its musical production it belongs among the most impressive musical tragedies the 20th century brought.