Editor of Limelight Magazine, Clive Paget reveals his masterpiece:
It was in London in the summer of 1990 that my idea of what music and theatre could and should do shifted, and it was thanks to a bunch of singing animals. No, not The Lion King before you ask – it was Leoš Janáček’s wise and witty 1924 opera The Cunning Little Vixen, it’s subject a feisty fox taken from a Czech daily comic.
I’d been an opera fanatic ever since I discovered Wagner’s Ring in the University library. The Ring was BIG! It was noisy, overwhelming, epic – everything my imagination could contain. I used to argue passionately that nothing could beat it.
And then, one afternoon I checked in at what was called the Covent Garden Proms – a series of performances over a week or so where for ten pounds you sat on the floor in the de-seated stalls area of London’s Royal Opera House. This particular performance of The Cunning Little Vixen was a new production by Bill Bryden with a 35-year-old Simon Rattle in the pit. Onstage was Lillian Watson as the vixen, Thomas Allen as the forester, Robert Tear as the schoolmaster – in short a classy cast. By the time the curtain came down I was a wreck. Janáček had done in two hours what Wagner had taken over 16 hours to achieve – and then some…
There were too many moments in The Vixen that moved me then, and still move me today, to mention them all. I cried many times during that show but the first, I think, was when the vixen was chained in the farmyard and Janáček writes this surging orchestral interlude that expresses all of her yearning for freedom. Bryden represented her spirit as a young girl on a trapeze soaring over the forest, forever out of the reach of the captive animal. And then (sorry, spoiler alert) there was the moment when the vixen is killed. There’s a tiny silence – no more than a heartbeat – and then Janáček just moves the music on. He doesn’t do the big swooping strings thing. No, he understands that nature is cruel, transient and eternal. Life ends, life goes on.
The final scene, however, is what means the most to me today. The forester, now an old man, is making his way home through the woods with his old dog. He stops, overwhelmed and awed by the sunset, and recalls his youth, his courtship – in short, everything that he’s lost and yet has made him the human being he is today. Finally he sees a fox cub. For a moment he thinks it’s the one he caught and took home years before. But then he understands – this is life. There will always be fox cubs. There will always be men. And, for me, all of humanity is defined in that single moment.
And that’s why, if I want to lift my spirits today; if I want to be reassured that life has meaning and that it is essentially the same for one man as for another, then that is what I listen to, just to remind myself that a few hours in a Czech forest are maybe worth more than a lifetime contemplating Valhalla.
– Clive Paget
To celebrate the Australian premiere of Quintett we’re inviting artists, arts commentators and luminaries from all walks of life to answer the question, ‘What masterpiece changed your life and how?’ Be it a dance work, theatre, film, book, painting, photograph, sculpture, or any other creative work.
We’d love you to send us your thoughts by commenting in the box below or sharing via your own social media channels – tag #SDCFrame and @SydneyDanceCo. Read more here
Image of Richard Cilli and Jesse Scales rehearsing Quintett. Photo by Peter Greig.