My Czech national shall not perish!

Interview with the sopranist Kateřina Kněžíková, who will perform the mythical Bohemian princess Libuse
You can read the full interview in our Programme catalogue 2024

Do you remember the first time you heard this opera?  

As a very young ensemble member of the Opera of the National Theatre. At the time, I was tasked with learning the role of the First Reaper, a very short part in Act II. I watched what was going on from backstage, and it always completed disarmed me. Smetana succeeded in taking a short piece of Czech history and writing something beautiful about it in three acts, illustrating the nature of human relationships and important values. In retrospect, I realise how much impact Libuše had on me back then. And yet it was not and really still is not my favourite Smetana opera. But there is something about it that touches me deeply. 

Is the opera not deserving of being in the repertoire? 

Smetana wrote clearly that he wanted it played only on important occasions, and I think that if someone has such a wish, it should be complied with. On the other hand, because Libuše is seldom produced, stage directors approach it cautiously. Were it produced as often as Rusalka or The Bartered Bride, we might also see more daring treatments of it. 

So what do you think Libuše is like? 

A calm, just, sensitive, and caring woman who tries to please others, but who never goes beyond the boundaries of her convictions. She is someone that society looks up to and trusts. A kind of authority that is not forced. A good person. And not hysterical! And that, in the end, is why I decided to accept this role. I realised that the dramatic character of Libuše can be done differently than just by straining to make a big sound.

And what finally convinced you to accept the role of Libuse? 

The conductor Jakub Hrůša with his questions about what Libuše is really like. He wanted me to discover that for myself, he gave me time, and he didn’t push me. Really, in the end, it’s always about the person you set out on such an adventure with, and at this time I probably would not have attempted it with anyone other than him. From a conductor, I need certainty that he isn’t going to ruin me. I made the definitive decision after Káťa Kabanová at the Glyndebourne Festival, and now I’m sure it will be a lovely experience, even if for some it might be a bit different from what is expected. In short, it will be a Libuše of my own. 

For its day, the opera has a strong feminist subtext… 

…something very daring from Smetana! An educated, clever woman is capable of finding a solution even in a seemingly impossible situation and can remain someone everyone looks up to, whose opinion is still valid in society. She puts her personal life on the line and shows trust in her advisors, who she has given the task of deciding about it. That is a beautiful gesture, after all! 

Standing in opposition to Libuše is Krasava, a character invented by the librettist Josef Wenzig. 

What kind of opera would it be if we didn’t have a bit of drama? Smetana composed Krasava as the opposite of Libuše. She brings something tempestuous to the story. The contrast between her and Libuše has to be huge. 

Besides the opening fanfares, the most famous part of the opera is the concluding prophecy. How does one feel when singing the words “my Czech nation shall not perish”? 

When I sang it at home for the first time, tears welled up in my eyes, and I was shaking all over. I was all emotional, like when one has a dream in which you get past all those visions, and suddenly at the very end you wake up to reality and you sing those last words. It’s amazing music to an amazing text. And then I seriously can’t sing it through to the end! I get past all the prophecies and images, and then at the moment that everybody’s waiting for, I just give up! So look here, Kateřina! Emotions belong in your head, not in your throat!