Smoking, nudity, immortality – Janacek opera The Makropulos Case, highlight of Hong Kong Arts Festival, has it all

A modern take on an eternal theme, this 1926 work – which has its Asian premiere in Hong Kong later this month – asks a profound question: what is the meaning of a life that never ends?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 February, 2017, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 February, 2017, 5:30pm

There is a warning in the Hong Kong Arts Festival brochure, on the page advertising its headline opera for this year. “This production contains onstage smoking and scenes of an adult nature,” it cautions. And it is right on both counts.

The National Theatre Brno’s vivid version of Czech composer Leos Janacek’s The Makropulos Case is certainly not the only opera with a post-coital cigarette moment. Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier sometimes has one, depending on the director, and Georges Bizet’s Carmen, a doomed love story set in a Spanish tobacco factory, is crying out for one or two. But without doubt The Makropulos Case has the only post-coital operatic cigarette smoked by a singer playing the part of a 300-year-old woman (though thanks to a fictional elixir, the years do not leave a mark).

It also probably has one of the few such scenes where the male principal really has to remove all his clothes. For that scene, the director, David Radok initially asked the baritone, Svatopluk Sem, to sit on the bed completely undressed, and then to walk over, casually, to the sink in the corner of the room, as a lover might do. “He refused first time,” says the artistic director, Jiri Herman.

“David said to him that it will be perfect that he should be really naked on stage, and he just said ‘No’.” But Sem slept on the idea and the next day, when they came to rehearse the third act, the curtains opened and there he was, sitting on the bed, naked. “And David Radok was really very happy.”

The Makropulos Case is also a rare example of operatic science fiction. It is the story of a woman who, over the years, has taken many names, always with the initials EM.

As the opera opens she is now Emilia Marty, she was once Elliann MacGregor… And it was when she was a child called Elina Makropulos that her father, happy to experiment on his own daughter, gave her a potion to drink, which he was testing before he gave it to the King.

It made her live 300 years. Although she had not been given a say in the matter of her own longevity, she used the time mostly profitably: to perfect her singing voice; to seduce some of the most powerful and attractive men in Europe; and to leave all sorts of trouble in her wake.

But now it is 1926, and three centuries have passed. The elixir is beginning to wear off, and Marty needs urgently to find the recipe, which she knows is hidden in the home of the Prus family. So she charms a lawyer into flouting the law and breaking into the house. And then she seduces Baron Prus.

It has taken 90 years for the story of Emilia Marty to come to Asia, but it deals with a subject that runs deeply in Chinese culture: immortality. It is a subject that reached a height of popularity and insanity with the first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang (259-210 BC) who drank mercury in his quest to conquer death, and built a vast underground city, guarded by the lifelike terracotta warriors which he believed would rise from clay to defend him when it was time to live again.

While the story, adapted from a play by Czech writer Karel Capek, may resonate with Asian opera-goers, the music isn’t always an easy listen.

When you understand what Janacek was doing musically, though, it is easier, says conductor Marko Ivanovic, who ćwill lead the National Theatre Brno’s orchestra and chorus for the performances in Hong Kong.

“He was attempting to put the melody of the spoken language in the score,” he says.

Running through the Janacek opera is the constant question – which must have bothered China’s first emperor too – of what life means when it doesn’t end. “There’s no joy in being good, no glory in being bad,” the libretto suggests. And would it mean anything anyway if all the people you had ever loved (and perhaps Janacek was thinking specifically of his beloved daughter Olga) are dead?

There is an additional irony to The Makropulos Case, which revolves around a 100-year old unresolved court case about the inheritance of Emilia Marty’s illegitimate son and his descendants: after Janacek’s death there was a spirited court case about his own will too.

He had left 100,000 crowns to the University of Brno. His widow, Zdenka, had royalties to most of his operas. But in a codicil, written in chaotic handwriting in the margins to an album shortly before he died, Janacek left Kamila Stösslová – a woman he met while on holiday in 1917 and with whom he became obsessed – the interest on the 100,000 crowns (which represented a huge sum).

As in The Makropulos Case, the dispute dragged on for years.

The Makropulos Case, February 23 and 25, 7.30pm. Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre. Tickets: HK$420-HK$800. Inquiries: 2824 2430