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One Opera, Four Stories: Martinu's 'The Plays Of Mary'

Over the centuries, the region historically known as Bohemia has had many names, and been part of many nations and empires: the Premysl Empire, the Hapsburg Monarchy, the Luxembourg Dynasty and the Holy Roman Empire. It has also been home to a rich and ancient culture, and some of the world's greatest and most popular composers from what we now think of as the Czech musical tradition. The names Antonín Dvořák, Bedřich Smetana and Leoš Janáček readily come to mind.

But there's another Czech musician whose name might also be part of that illustrious list, but often isn't: Bohuslav Martinů, who was one of the 20th century's most accomplished and prolific composers.

During a career that took him from Prague, to Paris, to New York, Martinů wrote six major symphonies, all of them striking. He also composed dozens of chamber works, 15 ballets, a collection of film scores and a variety of vocal and choral music. And he wrote more than two dozen operas, including The Plays of Mary, a score that's actually four separate dramas in one package, and features some of Martinů's most spectacular and inspiring music.

Martinů was born in 1890, in a small Bohemian village near the border with Moravia. He grew up in church -- literally. Until he was 12, Martinů's family lived in a church tower, where his father served as a watchman and bell ringer.

During the course of his career, Martinů became a well-travelled and cosmopolitan artist. As a teenager, he began musical studies at the Prague Conservatory. Later, in Paris, he was drawn to a wide variety of musical and artistic styles, including impressionism, avant-garde jazz and dadaism.

Martinů left Czechoslovakia when the Nazis invaded, early in World War II. He spent the war years in New York, where he wrote his first five symphonies and had a hit with his opera The Comedy on the Bridge.

Still, even during his formative Paris years in the 1930s, Martinů's music often gravitated back toward his Czech origins, and his religious upbringing. Both can be heard in The Plays of Mary, first performed at the Provincial Theatre in Brno, in 1935.

On World of Opera, Lisa Simeone presents Martinů's unique, four-part opera in a production from the Prague National Theatre. It features an impressive, ensemble cast -- with many singers taking multiple roles -- and the performance is led by one of today's foremost interpreters of Czech music, conductor Jiři Belohlavek.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2010 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.

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