‘I know from my own experience how painful love is’, wrote Leos Janáček to Kamila Stösslová, the woman with whom he had fallen in love, at first sight, almost ten years earlier. ‘All my works, all my operas, all include one painful love. I’ve experienced it in them and also in my own life.’

Janáček was no beardless innocent when he saw Kamila resting ‘like an exhausted little bird’ on a grassy bank in the Moravian spa resort Luhacovice in the summer of 1917. The composer was 63 years old and lately involved in an ill-concealed affair with Gabriela Horvátová, the dramatic soprano who had sung the role of the Kostelnicka in the 1916 Prague premiere of his opera Jenůfa. Long regarded as an outsider by the German-speaking Czech elite, Janáček had at last tasted the esteem of the Prague establishment but so indiscreet was his behaviour with Horvátová that his wife of 35 years, Zdenka, had attempted suicide. In January 1917, the couple agreed a legal separation, continuing to live together but sleeping and holidaying separately. Divorce was as yet unthinkable. While Zdenka retained her social status and financial security, the document formalised an embitterment that had set in after the death of their daughter, Olga, in 1903.

Zdenka anticipated that a liaison with Horvátová had been arranged as part of Janáček’s holiday in Luhačovice. Instead, something far more threatening to what remained of her marriage occurred: an instant infatuation with an unsophisticated 25 year old woman. Janáček’s opening gambit, ‘You must be a Jewess!’, was clumsy and crude, especially in the context of a Central European resort in which assimilated Jews felt comfortable (Zdenka would later refer to Kamila contemptuously as ‘die Jüdin’). Other resorts were less welcoming. Having first alarmed then charmed Kamila and her husband David Stössel, inviting them to visit his home in Brno, introducing them to Zdenka and establishing an almost parental relationship to the couple, Janáček would go on to nickname Kamila his ‘gypsy’ or his ‘negress’.

Happily married and with two small children, Kamila had no apparent interest in contemporary art music and little appetite for culture beyond popular romantic novels. Yet in the years that followed their first meeting Janáček wrote tirelessly to and for her. More than 700 letters survive: curious, stop-start, secretive notes that swerve between domestic banalities, descriptions of work in progress, butter-fingered eroticism and declarations of undying love. Her responses were unpoetic, perfunctory and generally bemused until April 1927, at which point a new intimacy was reached. Even then, their first kiss was delayed until August. The love-struck composer was now 73 years old.

From the earliest days of their relationship Janáček idolised and misunderstood Kamila, who now maybe yearned to be idolised and misunderstood. The slender beauty of 1917 had become a stout and unremarkable middle-aged woman, fashionably if not always flatteringly dressed. As Kamila’s waist thickened, Janáček clucked affectionately over her appetite, health and sunbathing habits and imagined her figure to be ripening with his unborn child.

A version of her was imprinted on the character of the Gypsy in the The Diary of One Who Disappeared and on the fretful heroine of Káťa Kabanová. She inspired aspects of plucky, passionate Sharp Eyes in The Cunning Little Vixen, weary, glamorous Emilia Marty in The Makropoulos Case, Aljeja and Akulka in From the House of the Dead. An embittered marriage was the subject of Janáček’s first string quartet, The Kreutzer Sonata (‘I imagined a poor woman, tormented and run down, just like the one the Russian writer Tolstoy describes’, he wrote), while the history of their correspondence, including the burning of many of Kamila’s replies, is depicted in his second string quartet, Intimate Letters. This, like Káťa Kabanová, features the intriguing timbre of the viola d’amore, then a far rarer instrument than it has become since the early music revival of the 1970s.

Adapted from Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s 1859 play, The Storm, and dedicated to Kamila, the opera most intimately associated with their love was written during the period in which Janáček saw her least. Between 5 January 1920, when he began composing Káťa Kabanová a few days after meeting Kamila and David in Prague, and 17 April 1921, when he completed the score, the composer did not see his muse. Unable to act on his passion except in his imagination, Janáček added the deep blues of twilight and the summer night to Ostrovsky’s sardonic realist drama of adultery and suicide, and, in his 1928 revision of the score, two extended intermezzos that say more about the yearning to kiss and kiss without surfacing for air than any words.

Nothing about Kamila’s demeanour suggested the neurotic temperament of Ostrovsky’s Káťa: unhappily and childlessly married to the weak drunkard, Tichon (the implication that he is infertile, if not impotent, is clear). Káťa’s tormented by Tichon’s hypocritical and hypercritical mother, bludgeoned by fear of public disgrace and divine punishment, enchanted by semi-religious fantasies of incorporeality, and wretchedly in love with the handsome cypher, Boris Grigorievich. The points at which experience and imagination meet are few: Kamila and David belonged to a broadly parallel class to the merchant caste in Ostrovsky’s portrait of provincial Russia. But although a significant avant garde had begun to flourish in the newly independent state of Czechoslovakia, bringing with it a new focus on women, Slavic attitudes to divorce had advanced little since The Storm.

The bitter ranting of the elderly train passenger in the first chapter of Tolstoy’s 1889 novella The Kreutzer Sonata that ‘the first rule for the wife shall be fear’ and that infidelity ‘happens among the upper classes, not among us’, could easily be voiced by Káťa’s monstrous mother-in-law, the Kabanicha, or, for that matter, a cruel parody of Zdenka Janácková. Such cruelty was certainly not beyond Janáček. Where Kamila benefitted from his inability to see her for what she was, Zdenka suffered from the same quirk. The composer who understood women so intimately in his operas, understood them not one jot in his life.

In her cheerful pragmatism, if not her attitude to sexuality, Kamila Stösslová was closer to Varvara, the foster child who acts as go-between (Káťa’s word is ‘seducer’) in the opera, stealing the key to the garden gate, instructing Boris to wait outside, then hurrying the lovers to their tryst. Varvara’s affair with Kudrjaš, an educated and un-superstitious young man, is uncomplicated. Their confidently flirtatious folk melodies stand in contrast to the lustrous death-wish intensity of Káťa and Boris’s love music, and the sour, co-dependent duet between Dikój and the Kabanicha, old familiars in a small and mean town that is transformed at nightfall.

Káťa is an outsider by nature, Boris by circumstance, sent from Moscow to live in the provinces with his grotesque uncle. Their desire is mutual but their motives are quite distinct. In his 1985 essay, A Russian Heart of Darkness, Alex de Jonge identified what he saw as a contradiction between Káťa’s ‘readiness to sleep with her lover as soon as she gets the chance [and] her readiness to commit suicide out of sheer misery, shame and despair.’ This is a misreading as fundamental as the great Janáček interpreter Sir Charles Mackerras’s assertion that the viola d’amore’s ‘sympathetic strings give it a slightly unworldly character rather than one suggesting love’. To Káťa, sex is a form of self-annihilation, a surrendering or extinguishing of will, as is made explicit in her first encounter with Boris. Misery, shame and despair stem from her unquenchable desire for him – the instruction not to look out of the window or speak to another man when her husband is away comes too late – rather than their ten day affair.

Káťa Kabanová is not a subtle opera but it is a clever one. No colours are muddied, no notes are without significance, no words are wasted. Káťa’s unworldliness is remarked upon by everyone: Kudrjaš, Tichon, Varvara. She mentions it herself in her recollection of childhood in Act 1, framed almost as a confession, and it is the characteristic that attracts Boris to her when he sees her at prayer. Brought up to be ‘a doll’, indulged by her mother then berated by her mother-in-law, she is already doomed when we meet her. Her leap into the waters of the Volga is not a reaction to but a natural extension of her longing to fly and her fall from grace – a kind of Liebestod in which even those whose judgement she fears are transformed into disembodied voices. For a composer who was outspoken about his antipathy to much of Wagner’s work, it is a strikingly Wagnerian gesture.

‘During the writing of the opera I needed to know a great measureless love’, wrote Janáček to Kamila in February 1922, in a note accompanying a copy of the newly printed vocal score. ‘I always placed your image on Káťa Kabanová when I was writing… Her love went a different way, but nevertheless it was a great, beautiful love.’ Káťa Kabanová remained Kamila’s opera, the opera that ‘had grown in her’ like a child. Though she never became Janaček’s legal wife, it was Kamila, not Zdenka, who was at the composer’s side when he died on 12 August 1928, and she, not poor, bitter, humiliated Zdenka, whom he loved to the end. Among the last entries in his commonplace book is this: ‘And I kissed you. And you are sitting beside me and I am happy and at peace. In such a way do the days pass for the angels.’ A week before his death, as he had promised in a cheerful note, Janáček had added a codicil to his will, ensuring that the royalties from Káťa Kabanová should go to Kamila.

Originally printed in Opera Holland Park’s 2017 Season Programme Magazine