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"The Librettist Wears Skirts": Female Librettists in 19th-Century Bohemia

  • Author(s): Parker, Emma Taylor
  • Advisor(s): Katz, Derek
  • et al.
Abstract

When Antonín Dvořák received the libretto to the opera Dimitrij in 1881 he liked it and asked to speak to “Mr. Librettist” right away. The answer, from the director of Prague’s National Theater was, “The librettist wears skirts!” Dvořák quickly corrected himself and soon thereafter was introduced to Marie Červinková-Riegrová, his new libretistka (female librettist). Despite Dvořák’s initial surprise he was not alone in working with a female librettist during this period of Czech history. Indeed, by the time Dvořák began composing Dimitrij, Bedřich Smetana had already composed two operas to libretti by Eliška Krásnohorská and was completing a third, and Zdeněk Fibich would compose three operas based on libretti by Anežka Schulzová in the 1890s. Although the female librettist was a comparatively common phenomenon in 19th-century Bohemia, elsewhere few women were engaged in the work of creating the texts for operas. In this dissertation I explore the cultural contexts that allowed for this high concentration of female librettists, the collaborations between composers and their librettists, and the reception of the works that resulted from these collaborations.

When Antonín Dvořák received the libretto to the opera Dimitrij in 1881 he liked it so much that he asked to speak to “Mr. Librettist” right away. The answer, from the director of Prague’s National Theater, was: “The librettist wears skirts.” Dvořák quickly corrected himself and soon thereafter was introduced to Marie Červinková-Riegrová, his new libretistka (female librettist). Despite Dvořák’s initial surprise he was not alone in working with a female librettist during this period of Czech history. Indeed, by the time Dvořák began composing Dimitrij, Bedřich Smetana had already composed two operas to libretti by Eliška Krásnohorská and was completing a third, and Zdeněk Fibich would compose three operas based on libretti by Anežka Schulzová in the 1890s. Although the female librettist was a comparatively common phenomenon in 19th-century Bohemia, few women were engaged in the work of creating the texts for operas elsewhere. In this dissertation I explore the cultural contexts that allowed for this high concentration of female librettists in Bohemia, the collaborations between composers and their librettists, and the reception of the works that resulted from these collaborations.

Building on the work of other musicologists who have established the historical narrative for Czech opera and examined the complex cultural politics of the waning Habsburg Empire, I place libretti and the composer-librettist collaboration at the center of my analysis. After providing biographical information, in some cases for the first time in English, about the lesser-studied figures featured in my dissertation in Chapter 2, I present two case studies that center on the collaborations between Dvořák and Červinková-Riegrová, and between Fibich and Schulzová. In Chapter 3 I discuss Dvořák and Červinková-Riegrová’s collaborations on Dimitrij and Jakobín. These works offer an informative juxtaposition that allows for an analysis of the conflicting demands of audiences in different parts of the multi-ethnic Habsburg Empire. Chapter 4 focuses on Fibich and Schulzová’s work on Šárka, an opera that was almost universally praised for its music and widely criticized for its libretto. By looking at this opera I expose the implications of inventing traditions and histories through the lens of Šárka’s reception. In the conclusion I offer several possible explanations for the phenomenon of female librettists in nineteenth-century Bohemia. Ultimately this dissertation explores the confluence of gender, national identity, and opera in a specific time and place, but has applications for all three topics in a variety of broader contexts.

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