In May 1916 Czech composer Leos Janacek was preparing to go to a spa for some well-deserved R&R when he happened to read a group of anonymous poems published in a local newspaper.
The verses told the story of an unnamed farm boy who fell in love with a Gypsy girl named Zefka and ran off with her, leaving his family and village behind forever.
Janacek took the newspaper clippings with him to the spa and began composing a rough sketch for what ultimately would become a 22-part song cycle which he called “The Diary of One Who Vanished.”
“The Diary of One Who Vanished” will be presented at Loyola University’s Roussel Performance Hall on the evening of Monday, April 13. The concert is free and open to the public.
The 37-minute song cycle will be sung by tenor Tyler Smith, mezzo-soprano Brindley McWhorter and four women from the Loyola Chamber Singers. Carol Rausch will accompany the singers on piano. Meg Frazier, director of Choral Activities at Loyola, will sing along with the chorus.
Most of the individual songs are short, ranging from 1-2 minutes each. An 8-10 minute piano intermezzo precedes the cycle’s final two solos by the mezzo and tenor.
According to Smith’s research, the song cycle has not been performed in New Orleans since 1959.
“This is an opportune time to bring this piece back out,” Smith said. “Czech operas and other works in the Czech repertoire are enjoying a resurgence among American (performing arts) companies, especially the works of Janacek.”
Janacek’s best-known opera, “Jenufa,” was scheduled to be performed by the New Orleans Opera Association during the 2005-06 season but was cancelled due to Hurricane Katrina. It has not been rescheduled.
In addition to “Jenufa,” Janacek composed nine other operas, seven major choral/vocal pieces (including the “Diary” cycle) and a number of chamber and solo piano works. Along with Bedrich Smetana and Antonin Dvorak, he is one of the most prolific composers in the Czech language, an idiom that now ranks in the top five among operas in the standard repertoire.
New Orleans Opera performed its first Czech opera in the fall of 2014, Dvorak’s “Rusalka.”
Smith explained that the English translations of what he and the others are singing in Czech will be in the performance’s program.
Visual images, featuring the photographs and other artwork of Steven Blackmon, will be projected onto a screen at the rear of the stage. Blackmon is the music director at St. Charles Presbyterian Church.
Rausch, who has played the first eight songs of the cycle on a previous occasion elsewhere, said, “I loved those pieces then, and I feel so lucky to get to do the whole cycle now. It’s such fantastically rich music. Janacek is one of those composers who definitely has his own unique sound.
“It’s kind of an amazing journey this young man takes,” Rausch continued. “It’s like somehow he was meant to go astray from whatever his family might want and fall in love and be with this woman.
“He even says at three different points in the cycle, ‘One has to give into one’s fate,’ and it’s just beautifully depicted, both vocally and in the piano.”
Smith, who explained that the planning for this production was a year in the works, said he had sung the piece about 10 years ago while pursuing his doctorate at the University of Houston. However, he added, “I never had time to really delve into it. I didn’t have any of the artwork or any of the background stuff that I really wanted to do. And now that I’m able to get somebody to do that and, with Carol playing, it brings in a whole different character to the piece.”
The evening’s program will start out with Brian Hsu, a new member of Loyola’s piano faculty, playing four selections from another Janacek piece, “On the Hidden Path,” composed between 1901 and 1911. The four selections are for piano only with no vocal accompaniment.