CCM’s ‘Cunning Little Vixen’ a symbolic and surreal mix of humans and animals

Nearly 20 years before Disney animators traumatized young “Bambi” filmgoers – “your mother can’t be with you anymore” – and 70 years before “The Lion King,” the Czech composer Leoš Janáček offered his own version of the circle of life. Human and animal worlds mix in symbolic and surreal ways in his 1923 opera “The Cunning Little Vixen,” leaving audience members to contemplate their relationships to each other and the world.

The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music brings that vision to Corbett Auditorium Feb. 29 through March 2. The new mainstage production is directed by Brian Robertson. Vinay Parameswaran conducts the student cast and CCM Philharmonia Orchestra.

“It’s an opportunity to hear one of the real hidden gems of music,” Parameswaran said.

Janáček is one of classical music’s most unusual characters, a late bloomer who produced his greatest works – several of them acknowledged masterpieces – starting around age 60. If you know any, it’s most likely the Sinfonietta (with its 12-trumpet fanfares), but also among them are five of the 20th century’s most compelling operas.

“Vixen” is the middle child among them. Janáček adapted it himself from a 1920 novella published serially in a Prague newspaper. The Czech title, “Příhody lišky Bystroušky,” best translates as “Tales of the Vixen Sharp-Ears.” Today’s common English title comes through the title of the first German production, which lost the Czech double meaning of “Bystroušky” as sharp or clever and left us with “cunning.”

Besides his nontraditional career arc, Janáček’s musical language is utterly original. As a starting point, think of a musical love child by Debussy and Mussorgsky. It’s late-Romantic stuff, all tonal, that organically alternates between lush sensuality and rough-hewn rusticity. There’s a strong folk-music influence, too, and the vocal writing captures all the awkward asymmetry of what Janáček called the “speech melodies” – the natural inflections of everyday conversation – of Czech. Janáček’s orchestration is … well, you just have to go hear it. It’s unusual, often utterly unidiomatic – and beautiful.

This is CCM’s third go-’round with “Vixen” (incidentally, never performed by Cincinnati Opera), but it’s the first to be sung in Czech. Musically, it’s the logical choice, said Parameswaran by phone from California. “The music is so reflective of the language. You have to do it in Czech.” (Fear not: There will be English supertitles.)

Parameswaran is no stranger to “Vixen.” As assistant (and later associate) conductor at the Cleveland Orchestra, he assisted Franz Welser-Möst in a landmark production of the opera. After CCM’s run, he’ll lead a production later this spring at the Curtis Institute of Music, his alma mater.

“This really is one of my favorite scores,” he said. “I’ve always loved this music. It’s amazing music, some off the best music out there.” 

Robertson took a circuitous path to directing. He grew up surrounded by theater thanks to his mother’s work as a summer stock stage manager in West Virginia. The company’s actors often stayed at his parents’ house, but their anxiety about where their next jobs might be led him to major in social work in college. The years he spent as a counselor and therapist taught him a great deal about human experience – lessons he applies today to his directing work.

Eventually, his artistic side won out, and Robertson worked for a decade behind the cameras on Hollywood films before coming to CCM in 1992 to earn a master’s degree in directing. While he works in several theatrical disciplines, opera holds a special place for him.  

“Theater is close to us because people are speaking, whereas in opera we allow the experience to be outside of us. … Opera leads us through a language that goes through a feeling place – more feeling than intellectual.”

Both Parameswaran and Robertson spoke about the contrast between Janáček’s treatment of the human and animal worlds. 

“Our basic premise,” Robertson said, “is that the forest world as represented by the vixen is something we yearn for. It seems pure, harmonious, an existence without doubt. There’s a beautiful sunset, even on a rainy day.

“Then the people world is the opposite. Awkward, unrequited, not realizing who we are. The forester [the opera’s lead male role] – his kidnapping of the vixen is an attempt to possess this power, this purity. Those worlds end up not fitting.”

Robertson spoke to Movers & Makers in the large rehearsal room of the Dieterle Vocal Arts Center, looking out over Nippert Stadium. The loud drills on the field, heard through the room’s wall of windows, made for its own overlap of very different worlds.

Parameswaran agreed about the opera’s emotional dichotomy. “The humans are just the most miserable people. The opera opens, and the forester doesn’t want to go home to his wife. The tavern scene in Act II where these guys are drinking because they don’t want to go home. The first redeeming moment for humans is in Act III.

“Nature is portrayed as so free.”

Miserable people actually are a staple of Janáček operas. They reflect his uncompromising outlook on life, that life is inherently endless struggle. Yet the characters’ stories are compelling because of it.

“It’s that struggle – what’s coming through in the end,” said Robertson. “The characters are still making an effort; they’re not giving in.”

“Vixen” is hardly all doom and gloom, though. There are moments of Dionysian rapture, plenty of jokes, and satirical commentary on politics and gender-role changes through a 1920s lens. “It’s a gorgeous score,” Robertson said.

Still, there’s an underlying melancholy that makes this opera more than a children’s story about animals in the woods. Some of that sadness undoubtedly reflects the complicated and unrequited relationships in Janáček’s own life. (It’s worth learning about, but it requires more room than is available here.)

Costume rendering for the title character in “The Cunning Little Vixen”

Robertson said this CCM production will show the natural world-human world conflict symbolically rather than dressing performers as actual foxes, hens and so forth. “The costumes don’t represent animals, but they’re well dressed in rich colors. The humans are dressed more awkwardly, lacking grace. Their clothes don’t fit, and they have mismatched colors.”

Parameswaran urged anyone on the fence about experiencing this production to take the risk. “It’s such a unique creation. … My parents, who didn’t know much about opera, came to visit when we did ‘Vixen’ [in Cleveland]. They couldn’t stop talking about it. 

“It’s an opera we can all find meaning in.”

  • “The Cunning Little Vixen” by Leoš Janáček
  • Feb. 29-March 2, 8 p.m.
  • Corbett Auditorium, CCM
  • Tickets: $25-$36 for adults, $12.50-$20 for students – CCM Box Office, online or at 513-556-4183 

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