An interview with Director Indre Viskontas and Music Director Jonathan Khuner
1. This story is originally from an ‘old world country’ in the 19th century - in what ways does Katya Kabanova address modern 21st century issues of modern psychology and science?
JK: I believe that Janáček was committed to portraying human behavior from a modern, that is to say, scientific point of view. At least his musical credo was to avoid sentimentality and general effusions of emotion, and to put each moment of a character’s experience under a musical microscope. It is for this reason that Janáček’s scores seem so compressed and almost impossibly rapid in their evolution of states of mind. Even when motives or melodic fragments are repeated - - and often they are many times over - - there is a flux of energy that suggests a medical graph needle jumping up and down unpredictably.
IV: We don’t get to choose our family - for the most part. Loving someone with whom you disagree, or whose values are different, is a common experience. During the pandemic, many of us have found ourselves having to spend more time than we’d like with the people we share a home with, highlighting our differences. Or, alternatively, having to go long stretches physically apart from those we love. We’ve had to examine what’s most important to us, what risks we’re willing to take to spend time with others, in a state of heightened anxiety.
The choices we made at the beginning of the pandemic maybe aren’t the same ones we’d make today. This opera is about clashing values, and how one person’s values can lead to another person’s tragedy.
JK: None of the people in the opera Katya Kabanova are bound by the character type which might seem to define them at first. For example, Tichon is not just a mama’s boy or a milquetoast husband; his thoughts and actions are unique to his situation and underlined by the composer with accompaniment that shifts second by second irregularly.
IV: But Katya Kabanova also about family relationships - how when a child gets married, the parent’s position is displaced, both in terms of influence and importance. For parents, it’s hard to let go, and to see the child as a self-sufficient adult, whose next of kin is now their partner. For children, it’s hard to choose between pleasing the parent and protecting the new partner, and it can feel as though someone is always bound to be hurt.
And for the new person, becoming a part of a new family can be disorienting and difficult. How can you be yourself but still meet their expectations? It takes time to love someone, but when you enter into a marriage, you are expected to feel the same love for your partner’s parents as you would your own. That’s completely unreasonable and yet it is simply taken as a given.
All of these challenges are compounded in the opera by the rural setting - the characters are trapped in a house together - which we can all relate to more today than before the pandemic.
JK: 21st Century brain scans were far beyond Janáček’s world, but the idea that the human mind can be dissected, and its irrationality explained by rules, is very much at the heart of this musical drama. However, the final triumph of our mysteriously untamable human spirit is also essential to his art. He stood at the inflection point between Romanticism and Modernism.
2. How can modern neuroscience illuminate the interpretation of a story that’s set in a tradition-bound society?
IV: Hopefully modern neuroscience is going beyond simply mapping the brain, and is bringing us closer to understanding how each of our brains are similar and different, and ultimately how the entirety of the human experience is made possible by our biology. I like to say that neuroscience and the arts have the same goal - to help us understand what it means to be human- but they use different approaches or tools. Neuroscience strives to be objective - to capture what is common across people, or how the biology of the brain supports who we are. The arts are subjective - using the individual experience to illuminate what’s universal.
I use my foundations in neuroscience at three different levels in my work: first, I rely on my knowledge of how the conditions of rehearsing can be optimized to promote effective learning and retention and give the artists the space to be creative and feel safe.
I like to say that neuroscience and the arts have the same goal - to help us understand what it means to be human- but they use different approaches or tools.
Second, I think carefully about the audience experience, recognizing that our senses are intertwined, and that what we hear is affected by what we see and vice versa.
Finally, I think about the drama from a psychological and neuroscientific perspective- how are the characters’ emotions constructed from moment to moment? What is motivating their behavior? What will they learn over the course of the story? This idea that we have a ‘reptilian’ or ‘lizard’ brain, that hijacks our actions when our emotions are in the driver’s seat, is no longer supported by modern neuroscience. Instead, we’re learning that emotions are built moment to moment, just like memories, and that our brains evolved to actively react to our circumstances and to try to predict the future.
JK: During our rehearsal process we have found that the way this opera’s characters process information and make decisions, though seeming capricious, is actually governed by the logic of their own mental makeup. Of course we can’t see their neurons firing or their brainwaves fluctuating, but there is an underlying consistency of reaction-patterns that convincingly seem to be generated from within a unique individual, rather than dictated by traditions of a particular society.
IV: There is another way in which science in particular plays a role in this opera - in the libretto, and even more so in the play on which it is based: there is a conflict between the religious older generation, where superstition and rules are prominent, and the more progressive, free-spirited younger generation, who is turning to science for explanation. Kudrjash in the opera and Kuligin in the play use the storm to marvel at the power of nature and the wonder of electricity, while Dikoj rejects their curiosity, favoring the idea that thunder and lightning are God’s ways of asserting His power and displeasure.
JK: Janáček deliberately stripped Ostrovsky’s play of its focus on social issues, though these still loom as the setting within which personal problems are explored. What makes Katya tick is supremely important; what she’s telling or representing is almost irrelevant — at least it’s not what moves us in the opera.
Composer Leoš Janáček and Playwright Alexander Ostrovsky
3. Katya Kabanova is about a special woman in an unhappy marriage. Do you think that modern psychology is motivating the plot? Do you think that the playwright and composer were motivated by modern science?
IV: I do think that science was something that the playwright had an affinity for and I assume the composer would have as well, though I can’t be sure. Certainly both were interested in psychology, if by psychology we’re talking about human behavior and our inner mental world. If you understand each character’s motivations, then everything they do or say makes sense. There is nothing artificial or unexpected in terms of the drama. The action in the opera moves quickly and the characters feel very real to me.
Sure, maybe in today’s day and age, Katya and Boris would have run away together but there are plenty of people who stay too long in partnerships that are destructive, even abusive. It’s not that Katya doesn’t love her husband at all, it’s just that he doesn’t understand her fully... or that he’s still figuring out how to navigate a marriage while living under his mother’s roof. There are moments of tenderness between them. How many of us can say that we’ve never had ups and downs in long-term relationships? There are lots of examples of couples who survive affairs, or those who stay together for practical reasons - for the kids, for example- even if their partner is not their soulmate. And, tragically, suicide remains far too common.
JK: There is no doubt that the plot of Ostrovsky’s Storm is motivated by the incompatibility between spiritual freedom and imposed behavior, between anarchical self-chosen identity and society-molding family dictates. Many stories throughout the 19th century explore this conundrum. Janáček cut out a great deal of Ostrovsky’s play. What is left allows frequent gaps of many seconds, where the orchestra can reveal the unspoken shifts of mental activity. This determination to cut through a general mental state, to analyze it moment by moment, is parallel to modern psychology’s drive to narrow focus on the smallest observable pattern of brain activity.
Photos: Clive Barda, Royal Opera; Richard Hubert Smith, Glyndebourne; Hana Smejkalová, National Theatre Prague; Teatro-di-San-Carlo