All images by Ctibor Bachratý
The National Theatre Opera, Prague – The New Stage, CZECH REPUBLIC
Libretto: Ivan Acher
Stage director: Michal Dočekal
Musical preparation: Petr Kofroň
Set design: Marek Cpin
Costumes: Eva Jiřikovská
Choreography: Lenka Vagnerová
Light design: Ondřej Kyncl
Dramaturgy: Beno Blachut
Sound design: Eva Hamouzová
Violin, viola: Tereza Marečková
Contrabasson: Lukáš Svoboda
Zither: Michal Müller
Conductor: Petr Kofroň
Characters and cast: Sternenhoch: Sergej Kostov, Helga: Vanda Šípová, Helga´s Father: Luděk Vele, Kuhmist: Tereza Marečková, Poet – Lover: Jiří Hájek, dancers: Fanny Barrouquére, Monika Částková, Karolína Gilová, Klára Jelínková, Andrea Opavská, Michal Heriban, Jan Kodet
What I Saw
Divadelnà Nitra kicked off with the Czech Republic’s National Theatre Opera’s new opera Sternenhoch, with a libretto by Ivan Acher and direction by Michal Dočekal, and based on The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch by Franz Kafka contemporary Ladislav Klíma.
In this horror fantasia Prince Sternenhoch marries Helga, a lowly waitress who may also be a witch. The marriage plays out as a series of surreal and macabre acts of torture. On their wedding night he rapes her at the banquet table. She gives birth and kills the baby. Sternenhoch kills Helga when he finds her with her sado-masochistic lover and she haunts him until he has gone crazy as well.
As is their custom, Divadelnà Nitra opens the festival with complex and provocative productions. The production’s high technical needs also made the opening slot ideal, due to its lengthy load-in and build.
International program curator Jan Šimko included Sternenhoch for its blending of opera and drama, highly acclaimed music and libretto, and the opportunity to highlight its source material, as Klíma is one of the lesser known Czech writers, compared to Kafka. Šimko was also drawn to the distancing effect of the libretto being sung in the international auxiliary language of Esperanto.
The production is a violent mash up of high and low culture. Performers, including the musicians who are incorporated into the staging, are costumed to evoke a steam punk circus. The music is at times cacophonous, oppressive, and aggressive, with abrupt shifts to the gentle and romantic. The result is a constant sense of propulsion that keeps the audience on edge.
Adding to the audience’s discombobulation is the language barrier. Archer chose Esperanto so that the audience would focus on the music, rather than the text (though if you speak at least two Roman languages it is possible to decipher it). Therefore the super titles in English and Slovak added another creative element – everything is translated, including the beeps Helga emits when she is trapped inside of a refrigerator.
Nevertheless the libretto is memorable in its contrasting images and dialectical tensions. Helga sings of the “delightful pain, splendid hideousness, truthful lie, what a super solar night,” capturing the opposing forces at play in the relationships, characters, and my own understanding of the story. Do Helga and Sternenhoch love or hate each other? Did Helga marry him to escape her abusive father? Did Sternenhoch marry her as a joke? Is love of another person a delight or a prison? Is Sternenhoch a violent and misogynistic tale of abuse or (as the fascinating Vanda Šipová, who portrays Helga believes) a feminist battle of the sexes as a woman caged – literally, several times – ultimately frees herself, bringing her husband down with her? Refreshingly, Sternenhoch leaves these questions for the audience to answer.
About the Artist
Michal Dočekal (1965)
graduated in directing at the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. He was director of the Kašpar Theatre Collective and subsequently worked as director and artistic director at Komedie Theatre. Some of his productions include: A. P. Chekhov: Three Sisters, W. Shakespeare: King Lear, Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew and Merchant of Venice, P. O. Enquist: The Image Makers, A. Christie: And Then There Were None. In 2002, he became artistic director at the Drama of the Slovak National Theatre and gained recognition abroad: H. Galron: Mikve – Aréna Theatre, Bratislava (2009), Vigszínház Theatre, Budapest (2010), T. Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire – Slovak National Theatre, Bratislava (2011), M. Bulgakov: Master and Margarita – Vigszínház Theatre, Budapest, F. Kafka: America – Hungarian Theatre of Cluj (2015). In 2011, he was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Union of Theatre of Europe and elected its President in the fall of 2015.
Awards: 1996 – Alfréd Radok Prize for Best Theatre of the Year – Komedie Theatre (Dočekal was then its artistic director); 2001 – Theatre News Award for The Tragic History of Doctor Faust (Komedie Theatre); Josef Balvín Prize for What Happened When Nora Left Her Husband.
Sternenhoch earned the Play of the Year 2018 Award (Theatre News Survey), and Ivan Acher received the Theatre Critics Prize for Best Music in 2018.
The Opera of the National Theatre Prague will make its third appearance at Divadlená Nitra.
A carpenter, forest worker, designer, musician and composer rolled into one, Ivan Acher naturally blends electro-acoustic and contemporary music. He founded WCAAM, a centre for retraining of trained musicians to become amateurs. As a composer and performer, he has participated in Vladimír Václavek’s VRRM project and Pavel Fajt’s Autopilote, and has regularly appeared with the NUO jazz all-stars mini big band. A seeker of cross-genre and striking solutions, he has employed musical and non-musical instruments, which he himself makes. Since 2002, he has collaborated with and composed approximately 20 pieces for the Agon Orchestra, specialized in contemporary music. Acher’s compositions have been performed at classical music festivals in Prague (Prague Spring), Hamburg, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, Vienna, and other cities. To date, he has written music for more than 150 acclaimed dance and drama productions in the Czech Republic and abroad. He has received nominations for the Czech Critics Prize, the Alfred Radok Prize, the Czech Lion and Dosky awards. He has above all worked with the legendary Comedy Theatre in Prague (Dušan Pařízek’s productions Kvartet Antiklimax, The Trial; David Jařab’s productions The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch, Weissenstein, Heart of Darkness) and the Lenka Vagnerová Company (her dance show La Loba, which has received the Herald Angel Award at the Edinburgh Fringe festival; Riders, Gossip, and other productions). Furthermore, he has composed music for a number of productions at the National Theatres in Prague and Brno, as well as other Czech, Slovak and international stages. Ivan Acher has written scores for dozens of feature films and documentaries. He has also created film projections for theatre projects (Magor’s Summa, The Trial, Heart of Darkness, etc.), photograph cycles (Gulliver’s Travels, Males and their Young, etc.) and three collections of poems.