It takes a special kind of director to tackle her first-ever opera at a major international performing arts festival like Spoleto, especially when that opera is a rarely done work by a challenging Eastern European composer.
Irishwoman Garry Hynes is precisely that kind of director. The first female to win a Tony Award for direction of a play, Hynes has nearly 40 years of theater experience and directing credits on two continents. She’s the co-founder of Ireland’s Druid Theatre, the country’s first professional theater company to be based outside of Dublin, where she’s served as the artistic director from 1975 to the present, with just a brief hiatus from 1991-95.
In other words, she’s got the chops and the experience to take the leap into the glittering, über-theatrical world of opera. And she’s doing it with Kát’a Kabanová by Leoš Janácˇek, an early 20th-century Czech composer whose music was heavily influenced by Slavic folk music. Along with Antonín Dvorak and Bedr˘ich Smetana, Janácˇek is one of the classical world’s most important Czech composers.
The story of Kát’a is as tragic as one could hope for — and in the world of opera, that’s saying a lot. Kát’a (pronounced roughly like Katya) is a young, dutiful woman married to a good-hearted but spineless man, Tichon. They live with Tichon’s tyrannical mother, Kabanicha, who constantly berates both of them — her son for being too kind to his wife, and her daughter-in-law for not being obedient enough. It’s far from a happy household. When Kabanicha sends her son off on a business trip, Kát’a begs Tichon to take her with him or to stay, as she is fearful of what may happen while he’s gone. He leaves alone, nonetheless.
At the encouragement of her friend Varvara, Kát’a leaves one evening to meet another man, Boris, who is in love with her. The two have an affair, but neither harbors any hope of happiness for the future. When Tichon returns home Kát’a is wracked by guilt. Weeks later the village is hit by a massive thunderstorm, Kát’a is sure that it is God punishing her for her sins. She confesses everything to Tichon and loses her mind, running into the storm, and finally throwing herself into the Volga River to drown. When Tichon tries to save her, he is restrained by Kabanicha.
It’s a high-strung, intense story, but that’s what drew Hynes to the project in the first place. “I hadn’t seen it — I knew of it, but no more than that. But I read it and just fell in love with it,” she says. “I think the music and the character of Kát’a is so wonderful, and Janácˇek has composed such an intense story and intense music.”
Hynes has always wanted to work in opera, although she’s spent most of her career directing modern and contemporary dramas by Irish and American playwrights like Eugene O’Neill, Martin McDonagh, and Brian Friel. She directed the world premiere of McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane on Broadway — it was that play that brought her a Tony. Hynes is steeped in the Irish dramatic tradition, with its rich use of language, its familiarity with the bleak, and its poignant embrace of the small, quiet tragedies of everyday life.
These things might seem to have little to do with a Slavic opera, but they actually provide an excellent reference point for Hynes’ Kat’a Kabanová. The story, for all its grandeur, is essentially a domestic one, and the villainous Kabanicha is that most banal of family members: the mother-in-law. No one could call the tragedy in Kát’a quiet, but after all, it is an opera.
But as with any good villain, Kabanicha is more than an individual, more than a simple mother-in-law. “She’s part of a society that believes that any transgression is punishable. She even mocks Kát’a for not mourning her husband when he leaves in the proper way,” Hynes says. “She’s individually an extraordinary character, but she’s also part of that society.”
That strict, Big-Brother-is-watching type of living also reminds Hynes, to a degree, of the Ireland of the past. “It’s only until recently that Ireland was a society where the church dominated everything. It dominated government, morals, politics, everything. Therefore this could be Ireland in the 1930s or ’50s in terms of its insistence on everyone living by a certain code. So I find the emotional territory very familiar.” (Incidentally, Hynes’ production is set around the 1930s.)
Kát’a, however, cannot conform to that code, and it’s that which is her undoing. “I think Kát’a is a character who doesn’t want to live life in the sort of base, organized way that the society around her insists she does. She won’t forego the experience of living for some kind of dull conformity, and eventually she pays for that with her mind. But she does that knowingly,” Hynes says.
Kát’a Kabanová is definitely one of the biggest projects Hynes has worked on, with a performance group of more than 100 people counting the orchestra, chorus, and principals. But she’s lucky to have an exceptionally strong conductor, Anne Manson, working with her. Manson made her name conducting operas, and has garnered high praise from everyone from The New York Times to Gramophone magazine.
Manson is just one person on what Hynes calls “a really great team” of behind-the-scenes personnel. “Obviously, it’s my very first opera, so it’s kind of terrifying, but I’m finding it just wonderful to be able to work with the music, and colleagues who are so expertised.” As for whether Hynes will run gladly back into the theater world after Kát’a Kabanová closes, or start looking for her next operatic project, that’s still up in the air. “I am loving the experience,” she says. “We’ll see how this turns out before thinking about anything else.”