Bedřich Smetana – Hubička (The Kiss) folk opera
(b. Litomyšl, 2 March 1824 – d. Prague, 12 May 1884)
(“The Kiss,” 1875-76)
Folk opera in two acts
on a libretto by Eliška Krásnohorská
The year 1874 was the annus horribilis in the life of Bedřich Smetana: in August he lost hearing in one ear and was racked by a high-pitched screech that prevented him from carrying out his musical obligations. By 20 October he had lost hearing in his other ear and was now, to all intents and purposes, stone deaf. He had to step down as principal conductor at Prague’s Provisional Theater (his only regular source of income) and gave away the performance rights to all his previous operas, including the stunningly successful Bartered Bride (1866), for a small monthly stipend which, however, the Provisional Theater declined to pay regularly. Faced with financial ruin, he moved in with his married daughter in the countryside, provoking endless marital discord with his wife Betty, who was accustomed to life on a much grander scale. He submitted to any number of quack remedies, including electro-shock treatment, to cure his malady. But it was incurable: he had entered the tertiary stage of syphilis, from which there was no recovery.
Yet it would be wrong to think that this put an end to Smetana’s creative urge: in the years left to him he finished five movements of his six-part magnum opus Má vlast, wrote one of the towering masterpieces of late nineteenth-century chamber music, the autobiographical String Quartet in E minor (“From My Life,” 1876), and completed his final three operas, one of which, Hubička (“The Kiss”), was to become second only to The Bartered Bride as the most successful stage work to flow from his pen.
A large part of this success was due to a single figure, Eliška Krásnohorská (1847-1926), a proto-feminist writer, translator, and editor who took it upon herself to supply Bohemia’s greatest living composer with suitable librettos for his future operas. She had already contacted him in the early 1870s with an opera project after Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night entitled Viola, which Smetana toyed with for years without ever bringing it to completion. Now she approached him with a new project based on a slender novella on village life entitled Hubička (“The Kiss,” 1871) by Karolina Světlá (1830-1899), another proto-feminist Czech writer who had earlier served as Krásnohorská’s mentor. At first she had to overcome the deaf composer’s despondency, which she did with remarkable perseverance and tact. In 1875 she gave him Světlá’s original novella with the suggestion that he use it as the basis of an opera; Smetana firmly declined. Then she handed him her own first draft of the libretto to Act I; Smetana continued to evince no interest. Finally she took the liberty of writing the words for the courting scene between the two main characters. The result is described in her memoirs: “The effect was immediate and tremendous. ‘But that already plays and sings,’ he shouted delightedly. ‘All we need now is music on paper and it is ready. How did you manage to put such music into it? It is as though it was already composed!’ It is indeed true that when I wrote The Kiss certain tunes were running through my head of which, of course, I did not boast to the Master. To me they were proof that the theme of The Kiss might well have been created to be set to music.” …
Full preface / Ganzes Vorwort > HERE