First Czech opera premiered 180 years ago

01-02-2006

Opera is considered by many of its devotees to be the highest form of the performing arts. Back in the early 19th century, at the time of the Czech national revival, an original Czech opera was just what the Czechs needed in their effort to catch up with their illustrious neighbours. 180 years ago this week, the first Czech opera - "Dratenik" or "The Tinker" by Frantisek Skroup was premiered in Prague.

On February 2nd, 1826, Prague's Estates Theatre was sold out, the audiences eagerly waiting for the first tones of an original Czech opera. Until then the Czech language had not been considered refined enough for such a highbrow art form but this day was going start a Czech operatic tradition which would peak in the works of Dvorak, Smetana and Janacek.

The daring pioneer was twenty-five-year old law student and enthusiastic composer and signer Frantisek Skroup who wanted Czech to be spoken and sung onstage. Before his own work was premiered in 1826, Skroup had staged three well-known operas in Czech translation.

His own work "Dratenik" or "The Tinker" was a comic opera about an ordinary Czech family of the time. The libretto was written by Skroup's friend Josef Krasoslav Chmelensky and the title role was sung by Skroup himself. "Dratenik" was well-received and is still occasionally played to this day - unlike Skroup's later operas. Eventually, Skroup left the Czech lands and in 1860 he settled in the Dutch city of Rotterdam where he died in obscurity on February 7th, 1862.

But the legacy of Frantisek Skroup is still very much alive. A song called "Kde domov muj?" or "Where is my homeland?" which he wrote for a play called "Fidlovacka" written by Josef Kajetan Tyl in 1834, became so popular among Czechs that it eventually became the official national anthem.

01-02-2006