The Devil and Kate (Čert a Káča), Op. 112, B201
Burghauser catalogue number
Date of composition
5 May 1898 - 27 February 1899
Premiere - date and place
23 November 1899, Prague
Bohumil Ptak - shepherd Jirka, Marie Klanova-Panznerova - Kate, Vaclav Kliment - Marbuel, Ruzena Maturova - princess, Robert Polák - Lucifer, Karel Veverka - devil-porter, Josef Karasek - devil-watchman, Ruzena Vykoukalova - Kate's mother, Vilma Hajkova - lady's maid, National Theatre Orchestra and Choir, conductor Adolf Cech, director: F. A. Subert
Editio Supraphon, 1972, Prague
Author of the libretto
1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 1 contrabass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, snare drum, tam-tam, 2 harps, violins, violas, cellos, double basses + mixed choir + soloists
Parts / movements
1st act: A Country Inn
2nd act: In Hell
3rd act: A Hall in the Castle
Shepherd Jirka - tenor
Kate - mezzo-soprano
Kate's mother - mezzo-soprano
Devil Marbuel - baritone
Lucifer - bass
Devil-porter - bass
Devil-watchman - bass
Princess - soprano
Lady's maid - soprano
Marshal - bass
Musician - tenor
peasants and their wives, youths, musicians, devils, courtiers
approx. 1 hr. 50 min.
The fairy-tale opera The Devil and Kate was written in the final period of the composer’s life, when he was now writing only programme music and operas incorporating fairy-tale themes. Dvorak was probably encouraged to write his new opera after receiving positive reviews of his symphonic poems based on Erben’s collection of ballads entitled Bouquet. The Viennese press, for example, wrote: “Antonin Dvorak wishes to conquer the stage. His symphonic poems are dramas without scenes, music without singers. We just add singers and we have opera. Music history probably has to write another important chapter: Ant. Dvorak and stage music.” Dvorak himself later stated that the positive reviews of his symphonic poems ignited his desire to write for the theatre: “After the symphonic poems I was universally acclaimed as a skilled composer of opera, and I can only say that these reviews did influence me.” Through the mediation of the director of the National Theatre, Frantisek Adolf Subert, Dvorak at that time acquired a libretto written by young author and translator Adolf Wenig, entitled The Devil and Kate, which had been awarded first prize in a competition held by the National Theatre Association one year previously. Dvorak’s friends had reservations about the libretto, nevertheless, it appealed to the composer and he decided to set it to music.
Wenig’s libretto is based on a folk tale adapted by the important 19th century Czech writer Bozena Nemcova. It is conveniently arranged into three acts, of which each is set in a different environment (inn, hell, castle). What sets the story apart is the absence of the traditional romantic element, thus the happy ending is derived on the basis of the moral correction of the princess and the liberation of the serfs. When Dvorak turned his attention to the libretto, he heard opinions from various quarters that its lack of lyricism was detrimental to the story. Dvorak still accepted the libretto, but he did yield to this pressure to a certain extent and requested that Wenig add a new text for the princess’s aria at the start of Act Three. This extensive and solemn scene, in which the princess regrets her sins, bemoans her solitude and fears punishment from hell, however, does not really fit in with the overall mood of the opera and interrupts the flow of the plot. The impact of Act Three is also diminished by the fact that the princess appears on stage for the first time since, in Act One, her imperious behaviour towards her subjects is merely related by another character, and thus the viewer doesn’t get the chance to see her psychological transformation for themselves.
Dvorak’s opuses originating in the last few years of his life – whether the symphonic poems or later Rusalka and Armida – are works which treat serious, often tragic themes, even if their outcome is usually tempered with a Dvorakian catharsis. The Devil and Kate is the only exception, where the composer treated a comic theme unburdened by “serious issues” and came up with a merry folk tale which is attractive even for young audiences. Here, hell is not a dark, Dantean world filled with demons, and its devils never strike fear in people, even though, in their clumsy way, they probably try their hardest to do just that. Comic situations also involve Kate herself, to whom the princess has to hand over the best house in the village so that she has at least some prospect of marriage. Despite its outwardly simple and straightforward expression, Dvorak’s score still reflects his sophisticated approach. The work is essentially the composer’s attempt at entirely new compositional techniques, a new perspective on the way in which texts are set to music, and new possibilities of expression. This is manifested particularly in his treatment of sung words: in previous operas, emphasis was placed on a flowing, lyrical vocal line yet, in The Devil and Kate, we will often come across short, terse responses which might seem to anticipate the characteristic brevity of Janacek’s “speech melodies”. Dvorak applied this approach especially in the role of Kate, whose key character trait – talkativeness – he masterfully captures in his music. Another aspect which contributes to the opera’s originality is Dvorak’s ability eloquently to characterise the environment and situation – an example being the evocative scene where Marbuel describes to Kate the various advantages of hell, or the orchestral introduction to Act Two, a shining example of Dvorak’s masterful instrumentation.
Typical for the music in The Devil and Kate are its dance melodies – the very nature of the libretto indicates that dance assumes an important role in the plot, particularly in relation to Kate, whose insatiable desire to dance is one of the main traits of this character. Dvorak develops this motif further in such a way that his dance stylisations weave their way through the entire opera: the original waltz in the village dance scene, the polka which Kate dances with Marbuel, the spirited dance of the devils in hell, or the stylisation of the polonaise in the overture to Act Three, which is often performed as an independent concert piece. Leitmotifs constitute an important structural element in the score. While this principle is understated in the composer’s two previous operas, Dimitrij and The Jacobin, in The Devil and Kate it represents a primary building block in the musical construction.
The premiere of The Devil and Kate on 23 November 1899 was eagerly anticipated: this was the first stage work that the composer had written after his triumphant return home from the United States. The Dvorak cult had reached its height in the Czech environment and the management of the National Theatre paid particular attention to the staging of the Maestro’s new work. The stage direction was assumed by the theatre’s director, Frantisek Adolf Subert, and the main roles were entrusted to the finest soloists that the theatre had at its disposal. The response from the critics was favourable across the board, and the work was so successful with audiences that another twenty repeat performances were scheduled during that same season.
Antonin Dvorak to Alois Gobl, 27 November 1899:
“My dear friend! I have been meaning to write to you for some time but, as you know, recently I have been extremely busy with my new opera, attending rehearsals and getting constantly exasperated, so I was also not in the right frame of mind to write. The opera was performed on Thursday 23rd, and also yesterday, Sunday, for the second time, and it was very well attended and enjoyed the kind of success I would never have expected in our day. There is little point in describing it to you, since you will surely have read about the outcome of the premiere in the newspapers. The opera was extremely well liked – first by the soloists, the orchestra and the chorus, then the audience and, this time, also all the critics, with just the odd reservation. The performance was excellent – the soloists, chorus and orchestra did what they had to do with great enthusiasm, so I am highly pleased and, if I were given a text this very day, I would be glad to embark upon it forthwith.”
Emanuel Chvala, Narodni politika, 25 November 1899:
“From a musical point of view, Dvorak’s new opera is indeed the result of a modern approach to the requirements of dramatic music; it is a musical comedy which takes into careful consideration the accurate and vivid declamation of the sung text, the characteristics of the given roles, the continual movement of the plot, brisk and effective music to reflect dramatic turns; in short, all the prerequisites of a modern opera.”
Jaromir Borecky, Narodni listy, 25 November 1899:
“Dvorak’s music bears the clear hallmark of his genius. Ebullient, melodic invention, stirring rhythms, sovereign command over all expressional means, audacious and original harmonies, colourful orchestration that frequently incorporates unusual and innovative combinations of instruments, at times gentle, at other times powerful – in short, the overall mastery of this artist, one of our greatest living composers, is even more in evidence in this work.”
While the premiere of The Devil and Kate was highly acclaimed in the eyes of the public and the majority of critics, the composer’s “revolutionary work” still defeated various theorists who dogmatically adhered to one or other of the trends influencing Czech aesthetics at the end of the 19th century. In it they noted the composer’s “sudden” inclination towards the principles of the Wagnerian drama. (Dvorak had, in fact, been an admirer of Wagner since his very early days, as documented in his first opera Alfred and in a series of chamber and orchestral works from that period.) The situation is eloquently illustrated in a text published in 1927 in the programme notes for a new production of the opera at the National Theatre:
“The premiere of this work in 1899 generated considerable surprise and caused much commotion. Czech opera, represented by Smetana and Fibich, took itself in a modern direction, heading towards the musical drama. Dvorak, however, stood on the opposite side; his view was to remain at the heart of operatic art and, in terms of form, he was a conservative. With The Devil and Kate, however, he became progressive; he abandoned his hitherto principles and attempted to find a new dramatic style. This turnaround, then, came so unexpectedly that it caused confusion among the small group of remaining conservatives who had relied upon Dvorak and had counted on him as ‘their very own’ composer.”
Dvorak, himself, however, never attempted to affiliate himself with any specific ideological “camp”; theorising and pigeonholing was alien to his nature. In his opera The Devil and Kate he was simply entering new territory once again and, in doing so, proving anew that, at almost sixty years of age, he was as determined as ever in his quest for new possibilities.
The first performance of The Devil and Kate outside the country was held in Bremen in 1909, initiated by Czech bass Karel Veverka, who was working in the city’s Municipal Theatre. The opera was subsequently performed abroad in 1924 during the Olomouc opera company’s tour to Vienna. The opera proved a total surprise for the Viennese public, since Dvorak was practically unknown to them as a composer of stage works: “Dvorak’s comic opera The Devil and Kate is virtually unknown in this country. Yet, chiefly for its beautiful music, it deserves to be etched in our memory. Dvorak’s music is, in many respects, simply inspired.” (Arbeiter-Zeitung) “[...] We can only wonder why this engaging work, a blend of the serious and the grotesque, the romantic and the merry, grand and folk opera, has yet to become established in this country. The opera’s entire story is infused with the best of Dvorak’s music which, in its colour and vitality, constantly surges like the brilliant interaction of ocean waves.” (Volkszeitung) The opera was successfully presented abroad in the years that followed, e.g. in Katowice, Oxford, Poznan, Vratislav, Ljubljana, Zagreb, Linz, Washington, Berkeley, St. Louis and elsewhere. The Devil and Kate was Dvorak’s first opera to be staged in England, in Oxford in 1932. This was also one of the first productions of a Dvorak opera that might be termed “modern” – in Act Two the devils weren’t playing cards, but rugby instead.
A dance is organised in the village, everyone is enjoying themselves. The inn is full of revellers dancing to the music, but shepherd Jirka realises that, as a serf, he has no choice but to get back to work – he has to leave otherwise he will be in trouble with the steward. He leaves the inn with a group of raucous musicians, which infuriates the steward, who tells him to “go to hell”. Kate arrives at the inn, but no-one wants to dance with someone who talks as much as she does. Kate declares that she’d dance with the devil if it came to it. It isn’t long before the devil actually appears. He comes disguised as a hunter and invites her for a dance. Kate is so taken by the stranger that she is willing to be swept off to his “castle”. At that moment, the ground opens up, and the hunter disappears down to hell, taking Kate with him. Kate’s mother is beside herself, but then Jirka remembers where his steward had “sent” him, and he jumps down through the hole leading to hell in search of Kate and the devil.
Marbuel appears, carrying Kate on his back and, shortly afterwards, Jirka arrives as well, banging on the gate. Marbuel and Lucifer welcome him and hope that he’ll rescue them from Kate’s tirades. Meanwhile, Lucifer decides that it’s time Marbuel went and fetched the princess, but her steward is only to receive a caution; he can stay on earth for the time being. First of all, however, he has to take Kate back to where she came from, a task which requires Jirka’s help. In return, they arrange that Marbuel will pretend he has come for the steward, and Jirka will “drive him away”. This deed will apparently land Jirka with a large reward. Jirka agrees, he calls for some dance music and, to the delight of all the devils, he and Kate dance their way out of hell.
The princess is horrified when a devil appears for the steward and she suspects that hell is preparing for her as well. So she calls upon the shepherd Jirka to assist her, since he apparently managed to drive away the steward’s devil; perhaps he can help her, too. Jirka promises that he will, but only under the condition that she agrees to free the serfs. The princess consents and, while she has her decree announced, Jirka hides Kate in the next room and waits for the devil. As soon as Marbuel appears, Jirka urges him to take off again because Kate is waiting for him. Marbuel is appalled and declares that all the terrors in hell and on earth are nothing compared with being lumbered with Kate, and he disappears through the window. The grateful princess appoints Jirka as her new minister and gives Kate a large house so that she can finally get herself a husband.