When Los Angeles Music Center Opera unveils its co-production of Janacek's "Kat'a Kabanova tonight, it may be the first time a Czech opera will be heard in the original language in Los Angeles. Over the decades, German and English were the languages used on those infrequent occasions when an opera by a Czech composer was mounted on this coast.
Since 1980, however, there has been an upsurge of interest and curiosity in Czech opera performed in Czech. In that year, Kurt Herbert Adler at San Francisco Opera decided to mount Janacek's "Jenufa" in its original language. An important element in the resulting success was neither a singer nor a conductor but a chic New Yorker named Yveta Synek Graff.
Adler asked Graff to provide his singers with a transliteration of the text and to coach them in the proper projection of the language. Since that time, Graff has traveled all over the United States and Europe introducing Czech opera in one form or other to increasingly receptive audiences.
With her collaborator, Robert T. Jones, she has translated "Jenufa" for the Seattle and Metropolitan Operas, "Cunning Little Vixen" for New York City Opera and "From the House of the Dead" for the New York Philharmonic.
Graff also has provided Surtitles (English translations projected above the stage) for "Jenufa," "Rusalka," "Kat'a Kabanova" and French ones (for the first time) at the Paris Opera with "House." She prepared Italian ones for "Jenufa" in Spoleto, Italy, but at the last minute the Italians decided this was one musical bandwagon they could do without.
Although skittish about her age ("Just say late 40s"), Graff is a no-nonsense woman with considerable musical and linguistic gifts.
She was born in Prague, the daughter of a diplomat. Her father predicted the Communist takeover and moved his family to Paris in 1947. There she entered the Paris Conservatoire and studied with the French soprano Ninon Vallin.
When she came to the United States in 1957, Graff studied with William Herman, who also taught Jan Peerce, Patrice Munsel and Roberta Peters. But Graff's priorities were elsewhere. She soon married.
Graff began to move in New York musical circles, especially those in the Czech community. She became friendly with Rafael Kubelik, Rudolf Firkusny and Jarmila Novotna. She suddenly was the unofficial CEO of the New York musical welcome wagon, Czech division, whenever visiting musicians from Prague came to town.
She managed to interest the Opera Orchestra of New York in Czech rarities. In Carnegie Hall, there were performances of "Dalibor," "Kat'a Kabanova," "Libuse" (the first performance outside of Czechoslovakia), "Rusalka" and "Jenufa." Graff coached soloists and chorus in all of them.
"I know there are those who ask how many in the audience will know the difference when these operas are done authentically," she says, "but how many more really know when German, French or Italian are properly done?
"I want the audience to hear the music the way the composer intended. In those old German translations, literally hundreds of notes were lost. Adler in San Francisco knew this. It took great courage for him to break the ice."
Another musician to whom Graff gives credit is Sir Charles Mackerras, a Janacek specialist who asked her to return in 1986 to San Francisco for "Jenufa" and brought her with him to Paris.
With the exception of Gabriela Benackova, whom she brought to this country, most of the artists Graff works with, such as Leonie Rysanek, Karan Armstrong and the entire Los Angeles "Kat'acq" cast, are non-Czechs.
"You know, the Americans are the most talented," Graff claims. "Musically they are the best prepared. They are like sponges. When Dolora Zajick was singing a small part in Janacek's 'Glagolitic' Mass, she telephoned me to go over my transliteration to see if she was doing it right.
"As my experience has grown, I find I can do these operas without Czech singers with no problems.
"The 'Kat'a" cast in Los Angeles is wonderful. I am a bit apprehensive about the Surtitles. We are using fewer than usual. Gotz Friedrich asked me to delete about a hundred sentences. I think he wants as few distractions from the stage as possible. I hope it works."