9:08am

Fri February 4, 2011
World of Opera

Renewed by Romance: Smetana's 'The Kiss'

It can sometimes be distracting, or even misleading, to associate a composer's music with particular events in his or her personal life. But at times, the stories linked to a given composition are too compelling to ignore, and can actually give the music added meaning.

The most famous example may be the story about Beethoven, his deafness and the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, in 1824. It comes in any number of versions but in most of them, Beethoven was onstage for the performance, beating time to music he heard only in his mind — and as the symphony concluded, Beethoven was facing away from the audience, still conducting. So someone caught his attention and turned him around, so he could see the cheering crowd, and acknowledge their ovation. If possible, the story makes an already powerful symphony even more inspiring.

As the result of legends such as that one, Beethoven's deafness is one of the most widely-known facts about the personal life of any composer. It's less well known that another great, 19th-century composer, Bedrich Smetana, endured the same fate, about fifty years later.

In the mid-1860's Smetana began an eight-year tenure as principal conductor, and later artistic director, of the Provisional Theater in Prague, the only fully-established Czech opera house. But his years there were often difficult, as he faced frequent opposition, and even ridicule, from those who felt he wasn't up to the job.

Then, in 1874, Smetana began to lose his hearing. He suffered from tinnitus — a buzzing in his ears that eventually blocked out everything else. His right ear was the first to be affected, and later that year he lost all hearing in his left ear as well. Former students took up a collection so Smetana could travel to seek medical treatment but nothing helped. He was forced to resign his position at the theater and at one point wrote that, "I should prefer to be liberated from this life."

Smetana did continue composing, but at first he limited himself strictly to non-vocal music. It was a drastic decision for someone who had devoted much of his career to the theater, and who became known as a founding father of Czech opera.

However, in 1876, he was given a new libretto, called Hubička, or The Kiss. It tells an awkward story of rekindled romance — some might even call it silly. But Smetana, who was dealing with a new and surely frightening time in his life, took the libretto's tale of renewed love — and hope — to heart. In the process, he created an opera with a touching, folk-like charm, and a depth of feeling that somehow goes beyond its outwardly simple story.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us Smetana's The Kiss in a production from the Wexford Opera Festival in Ireland. The stars are soprano Pumeza Matshikiza and tenor Peter Berger as the couple whose prickly romance keeps the story spinning, in a performance led by conductor Jaroslav Kyzlink.

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