War with the Newts (An article on Vladimir Franz´s opera)
Mr. Culture is on the road this month, getting his ears tuned in one of the great music centers of Europe: Prague. This is the land of Dvořák, Smetana, Janáček and Martinů, the place where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni in 1787, and where the Prague Spring festival continues to draw world-class performers every year. Long known as "the conservatory of Europe," the city has two music academies, five working symphony orchestras, three dedicated Baroque ensembles - including possibly the best in Central Europe, Collegium 1704 - and more chamber groups than one can count. Clevelanders missed a chance to see one of the best, the Prazak Quartet, when they canceled their appearance at the Art Museum in October.
The city also boasts two opera houses, a thriving modern music scene, and a first-rate roster of jazz musicians, many of whom studied at Berklee in Boston. With all that to choose from, where does one begin?
In this case, with the premiere of a new work at the State Opera, War with the Newts (Válka s mloky in Czech). A hybrid that incorporates elements of opera, musical theater, pop music and social satire, Newts is based on an eponymous 1936 novel by Karel Čapek, perhaps the greatest Czech writer of the 20th century. A political allegory cast in the form of a sci-fi novel, Newts tells of the discovery of a race of giant salamanders who are enslaved and exploited by humans, and ultimately revolt. Čapek casts an acerbic eye on capitalism, nationalism and racism, and foresees the coming shadow of Nazi fascism.
If putting all that onstage sounds like a challenge, imagine throwing in satirical commercials, a dose of heavy metal, and a postmodern score, and trying to make sense of it all. That it works is largely to the credit of David Drábek, one of the Czech Republic's most versatile and innovative stage directors, who matches the nonstop momentum of the music with a fast-paced flow of singing, acting, and eye-catching visuals, segueing seamlessly from comedy to disaster. Costume designer Simona Rybáková adds to the effect with tall, genuinely creepy newts, who skulk about with glowing red eyes.
The weird mix of elements is totally appropriate to librettist Rostislav Křivánek's setting: Morgan Bay, a resort town near New Orleans. Drunks at a beachside bar, exploited workers vaguely reminiscent of black slaves, ruthless capitalists - it's all disturbingly familiar, especially when a monster storm hits, á la Katrina, and wipes out the town. Composer Vladimír Franz matches the maelstrom onstage with a tumultuous, driving score that barely stops for an occasional duet or aria, and unabashedly throws in an electric guitar when a heavy metal singer entertains the tourists.
For a visitor, Newts is at once enthralling and confounding. Without some background in Čapek's novel and Czech opera and theater, there is no way to make any sense of this. But as a sampling of Central European culture, it's riveting - not to mention a bit disconcerting seeing your homeland through the eyes of foreigners. It's easy to ignore the dark side of capitalism when you live in its throbbing heart, but eye-opening to see the reaction of people still adapting to it after 40 years of communist socialism.