Lyric Opera of Chicago
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  • by Leos Janacek
  • In Czech with projected English translations

  • Running Time: 2 hours, 5 minutes


She is Katya — married to an ineffectual man who's still under his mother's thumb, emotionally beaten down by a mother-in-law from hell, and destroyed by guilt when she grasps at happiness by taking a lover.

Ecstasy and anguish...hope and despair...everything Katya feels is right here in this gorgeous music. A masterpiece from the composer they call the "Czech Puccini."

Karita Mattila is incendiary…her Katya is a theatrical, personal, and all-embracing triumph...a tragic heroine of stunning moral force.” San Francisco Chronicle

As Katya's horrible mother-in-law, Judith Forst is fearsome in demeanor.” Associated Press

Brandon Jovanovich: "Looking every inch the matinee idol, he sings with radiant fluency and clarion high notes.” Opera News

Katya Kabanova

Lyric Opera presentation generously made possible by an Anonymous Donor, Julie and Roger Baskes and Margot and Josef Lakonishok.

Production of Katya Kabanová originally created for the Metropolitan Opera.


Karita Mattila

Karita Mattila

Judith Forst 

Judith Forst

 Brandon Jovanovich 

Brandon Jovanovich*

Liora Grodnikaite 

Liora Grodnikaite*

Garrett Sorenson 

Garrett Sorenson*

Andrew Shore 

Andrew Shore 

Jason Collins

Jason Collins*

Leemhuis headshot

Kathryn Leemhuis

LaRosa Headshot

Paul La Rosa* 

Wagner Headshot

Amber Wagner
Markus Stenz 

Markus Stenz*

Miller Headshot

Original Production
Jonathan Miller*

Paula Williams

Stage Director
Paula Williams*

Israel Headshot

Robert Israel

Schuler Headshot

Lighting Designer
Duane Schuler


Chorus Master
Donald Nally

Graff Headshot

Diction Coach
Yveta Synek Graff 


Wigmaster and Makeup Designer
Richard Jarvie 


*Lyric debut

TIME: About 1860

PLACE: In Russia, the small town of Kalinov on the banks of the Volga



Scene 1. In front of the Kabanovs’ house

Scene 2. A room in the house



Scene 1. The Kabanovs’ living room

Scene 2. A garden behind the house



Scene 1. Deserted ruins of a church

Scene 2. The banks of the Volga



Scene 1.  Vanya, a student, and Glasha, the Kabanovs’ servant, observe the rich merchant Dikoy berating Boris, his nephew. Dikoy interrupts his torrent of abuse to ask Glasha if her mistress is at home, then leaves when he learns she is not. Vanya asks Boris why he tolerates such mistreatment. Boris explains that he and his sister, who lives in Moscow with relatives, became dependent on Dikoy after their parents died. They will receive their inheritance, entrusted to Dikoy, upon coming of age – provided they have treated their uncle with respect. Boris is afraid to rebel for fear of jeopardizing his sister’s future. To add to his misery, he has fallen in love with a married woman, Katya Kabanova. Vanya advises him to suppress his feelings unless he wants to ruin Katya’s life.

The Kabanovs return from church. Kabanikha, Tikhon Kabanov’s widowed mother who dominates the household, poisons the atmosphere by insulting her daughter-in-law. Katya and Tikhon, restrained by Slavic traditions of maternal respect, offer only token resistance, but Varvara, Kabanikha’s foster-child, remains uncowed by the old woman’s carping. Kabanikha orders Tikhon to undertake a business trip to the nearby town of Kazan. Alone with him, Varvara reproaches Tikhon for not defending Katya more forcefully.

Scene 2.  Katya talks to Varvara about the carefree life she led before marriage. She confides that lately she has been troubled by erotic dreams and fears that she may be on the brink of committing adultery. Varvara suggests that she see the man during Tikhon’s absence. When Tikhon is saying good-bye to Katya, she begs him not to leave or to take her with him. He refuses both requests. Their leave-taking is marred by Kabanikha’s sarcasm.



Scene 1. Kabanikha upbraids Katya for not reacting appropriately to Tikhon’s departure. When she has left, Varvara gives Katya the key to the garden gate, which she has taken from the place where Kabanikha hid it. Varvara offers to arrange a meeting between Katya and Boris. Katya is initially horrified, but then decides that fate has willed this meeting. After she leaves, Kabanikha receives a visit from Dikoy, who has had too much to drink and now wants Kabanikha to chastise him for his sins.

Scene 2.  In the Kabanovs’ garden, to pass the time while awaiting Varvara, Vanya sings a folksong. Boris arrives and tells Vanya he has been summoned to this spot by a girl he did not recognize. Vanya tries unsuccessfully to discourage Boris from seeing Katya. Varvara appears and tells Boris he will not have to wait long. Moments later Katya appears, aloof at first, but softening at Boris’s tender words. Although guilt weighs heavily on her mind, she admits that she loves him. Varvara and Vanya return from their stroll and then send their friends off, promising to call them when it is time to go back. As Varvara converses with Vanya, rapturous exclamations from Katya and Boris are heard in the distance.



Scene 1. Vayna and his friend, Kuligin, who are taking refuge from the rain, are soon joined by townspeople. When Dikoy appears, Vanya tries to convince him that the town needs lightning rods to control the effects of the region’s frequent storms. Dikoy replies that storms are punishment sent by God and that it is sacrilege to interfere. As he is leaving, Vanya meets Boris. An agitated Varvara runs up to Boris and asks for help with Katya, who has been behaving erratically since her husband’s unexpected return. As Katya approaches, Varvara warns Boris that Kabanikha, who has kept a suspicious eye on her daughter-in-law, cannot be far behind.  Katya tells Varvara that her heart is broken, and her frenzied manner draws comments from bystanders. She sees Boris and breaks down. When Dikoy, Tikhon, and Kabanikha appear, moment. Katya falls on her knees before them, confesses her adultery, and names Boris as her partner.

Scene 2. Tikhon searches for Katya, who has disappeared. He confides his mixed emotions to Glasha: he is angry, hurt, and thinks Katya should be punished, yet he still loves her and feels incapable of harming her. Meanwhile, Varvara and Vanya meet and decide to run away together.

As the voices of Tikhon and Glasha call out Katya’s name in the distance, she appears. She deeply regrets having brought shame and ruin on herself and Boris. Though life now holds no joy for her, she feels she must live in order to redeem her sin through suffering. Suddenly she is overwhelmed by a need to see Boris again, and she calls out to him. As if in answer to her appeal, he appears. He tells her his uncle is sending him to Siberia, but he is worried about what will become of her. There is something she wants to tell him, but she cannot remember what it is. They look deeply into each other’s eyes, then part.  Left alone, Katya hurls herself into the Volga.

Kuligin, who has been observing Katya, calls for help. Dikoy carries her lifeless body up from the river and lays it on the ground before Tikhon and Kabanikha. Tikhon breaks down as his mother coolly thanks her friends and neighbors for their kindness.

Katya Article

WICKED STEPMOTHERS ARE THE FAMILIAR STUFF OF FAIRYTALES AND FILMS – characters we love to hate. Mothers-in-law, however, tend to get only bad jokes and the sit-com treatment. Films and fables about nasty mothers-in-law abound in other cultures, and numerous websites post tales of dreadful “MILs.” Surprisingly, though, there are virtually no archetypically awful mothers-in-law in western literature and opera.

Except for Kabanicha, whose very name sounds evil: “KAH-bah-nee-kah.” A well-off merchant’s widow in a small Russian town on the Volga River in the 1860s, she’s a formidably toxic “monster-in-law” who drives her affection-starved daughter-in-law, Katya Kabanova, to madness and suicide.

Their volatile relationship is exposed with incredible power and poignancy in Leoš Janáˇcek’s  Katya Kabanova  ( Kát’a Kabanová in its Czech spelling), which returns to Lyric in November for the first time since 1987. Karita Mattila and Judith Forst will reprise their electrifying artistic partnership from the 2004 revival of the Metropolitan Opera’s 1991 Jonathan Miller production, directed by Paula Williams and conducted by Markus Stenz (debut).

Early in the opera, Kabanicha shows her stripes. She bullies her son Tichon (Jason Collins/debut) and his wife Katya, ordering Tichon to drive immediately to a distant market and berating him for apparently preferring his wife to his mother. When Katya protests – meekly – that they both love her, Kabanicha shuts her up contemptuously. When Tichon argues – weakly – that he loves them both, Kabanicha snaps, “Are you setting your wife alongside your mother?! Will you never raise your hand to her? What if she were to take a lover?”

Talk about a twisted triangle!

Katya, it turns out, is already gripped by a fatal attraction – and it’s mutual. She’s caught the eye of a handsome young Muscovite, Boris (Brandon Jovanovich/ debut), who’s stuck in the boonies waiting for his inheritance. Badgered and belittled as a good-for-nothing parasite by his merchant uncle Dikoj (Andrew Shore), Boris’s only diversion is love for Katya, who he has glimpsed in church.

She is terrified of falling into sin, but can’t resist the dream of love. When Kabanicha’s foster sister, Varvara (Liora Grodnikaite/debut – see “Entrances & Encores,” p. 20), lightly suggests arranging a tryst by the river with Boris, Katya’s initial panic yields to her heart’s desire. Varvara’s carefree rendezvous with her lover, the boyish schoolteacher Kudrjáš (Garrett Sorenson/debut), inspires Boris and Katya to gloriously soaring declarations of love as they succumb to their passion.

Tichon’s return two weeks later, however, marks the end of the affair and Katya’s complete collapse: delirious, she confesses her adultery to her disbelieving husband and triumphant mother-in-law – and all the townsfolk taking shelter together from a storm. Dikoj banishes Boris to a Siberian trading post; Katya, utterly hopeless after their final farewell, leaps to her death in the Volga River. The opera closes with Kabanicha imperiously thanking the townsfolk after Katya’s body is dragged onto land. Once again her son is hers and hers alone.

“I love the fact that Janáˇcek, hardly a feminist, was fascinated by these stories of different kinds of women,” says Mattila, whose Katya and Jen ˚ ufa portrayals have been acclaimed internationally. “I’m fascinated to go under the skins of these women who were women of their time, finding their inner strengths. Katya tries to find balance in a loveless traditional marriage. She’s obviously very affectionate, but Tichon can’t express his love in a way that satisfies her – maybe because of his mother, or maybe he’s impotent. She ends up at an impasse – committing adultery doesn’t release her from her inner emotional prison. It doesn’t open a future for her, and she ends up quite alone. Being in this small village where everybody knows your business, especially if you show signs of being different – that claustrophobic atmosphere is so well described in the music, and it creates a fantastic, real surrounding. She tries to get out and doesn’t make it; she loses her mind. She can’t take the pressure, which comes from within herself.

“Times have changed a lot, but changes in people happen much slower,” Mattila continues. “This is a very real kind of story of people with their flaws and their weaknesses. It’s a timeless situation; the difference is in the outcome. Today she could get divorced and not kill herself, find a new man, and forget about Boris as well!”

As harrowing as the title role is, Mattila considers Kabanicha “the most challenging character in the whole opera. Nobody is that way without a reason. She must be a very unhappy person, being so dependent and jealous and extremely arrogant, crushing…she is very fragile inside and truly unhappy.”

Judith Forst is renowned for her portrayals of difficult women, including Salome’s Herodias (her previous role at Lyric) and  Jen˚ufa ’s Kostelniˇcka (opposite Mattila at the Met). “You have to be very careful with these larger-than-life characters or they become cartoons,” Forst says. “Kabanicha is an overprotective, over-involved mother who wants what she wants from a daughter-in-law, but Katya shows signs of some independence. Kabanicha is all about show – the family must look like the pillars of society. But something is going on between her and Dikoj,” the opera’s other nasty representative of the older generation, Forst notes. “These two characters get together in a very perverse way: He’s drunk and she’s dominating him in one way or another. It’s a short scene that shows another side of the character and helps you build her.” Because the opera moves so quickly, “relationships have to be set up very cleanly and clearly so the audience is drawn in from the get-go.” Forst is frequently booed and hissed during  Katya  curtain calls: “That’s great – it means they’ve understood this character!”

Forst looks forward to working with Mattila again: “She’s extraordinary – in her approach to rehearsal, to the role, in the way she thinks through things. She’s an artist who draws you in with her body language and of course with her voice.” She relishes the score’s challenges: “It’s difficult – one bar is drawn out, the next is  allegro agitato. It takes an orchestra like     Lyric’s to do this sort of thing well.”

Musically and dramatically, Katya vividly depicts its provincial personalities and the primal forces of nature – flowing river, crashing storm, sunlight shimmering on the water. In its setting and its portrayal of outsiders in a close-knit community, Katya bears some coincidental resemblance to Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Britten’s Peter Grimes, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and Floyd’s Susannah. Janáˇcek’s musical language is utterly original, yet has the familiar feel of a good movie score, completely supporting the story. Katya ’s prelude introduces several recurring musical motifs: the title character’s graceful theme (less a single melody than a quietly shimmering style of music, often including a viola d’amore), the fate theme played by timpani and trombones, the insistent departure theme with its jingling carriage bells, the “sigh of the Volga” theme, and a storm theme, among others. As with all of Janáˇcek’s operas, Katya is through-composed and shaped to the conversational textures of the Czech language. Its six scenes flow quickly over the course of just over two hours, including one intermission. Despite its relative brevity, all the characters are clearly defined. Lush orchestration provides rich emotional subtext, revealing the characters’ – and the composer’s – true feelings with utter clarity.

Katya and Janáˇcek’s subsequent works all stemmed from his ardent infatuation with Kamila Stösslová, a married woman 38 years his junior. He was unhappily married and in his mid-60s when they met. She was indifferent to his music and his romantic overtures (although she kept all his letters), so he poured his soulful yearning into his compositions. While most of his operas were set in his native Czechoslovakia, Janáˇcek (1854-1928) loved all things Russian; he knew the language and the country well. Katya was inspired by realist playwright Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Storm; in Russian, the title also means “terror” or “disaster.”

Newcomers to the opera may be surprised that Katya “goes from exposition to a deeper emotional place very quickly,” says director Paula Williams. Also surprising is “that you feel from the orchestration a great deal of emotion that doesn’t need to be illustrated onstage, so the acting can be understated. That’s the great thing about opera – music speaks so much more intensely than acting out an emotion.” The Lyric performances mark Williams’s third time directing this production. “It’s a poignant, simple story about a poignant, simple woman – you just let it unfold. You don’t need historical knowledge or background; it’s about what you see onstage.” The production itself, she notes, is moved forward to the 1920s, Janáˇcek’s time. Robert Israel’s designs “are very naturalistic, simple, with little boxlike rooms and houses, and big open spaces.”

“The Jonathan Miller production is very beautiful, and the set is genius – it catches the claustrophobic atmosphere of the whole story,” says Mattila. “I love the Met production – it’s my absolute favorite. I’m happy to come back to it at Lyric.” This will be the soprano’s fifth portrayal of Katya and fourth production.

Mattila is hooked on Janáˇcek because “his combination of words and music is so organic. He encouraged singers to take musical liberties – to follow the rhythm of the language, the coloring of expression, to feel the freedom. That’s why Janáˇcek talks to me! His operas need lots of rehearsals and a very good conductor who is willing to combine music and theater equally. Janáˇcek’s approach is like a professional singer’s – we are not onstage to oppose or endorse the characters’ actions and choices, but to give life to these stories, performing in that richness of the operatic language. We can dig deeper as performers to make the audience think a bit more, beyond just enjoying the beautiful music.”

Discography and Videography



Söderström, Kniplová, Márová, Dvorský, Jedlička; Vienna Philharmonic, cond. Mackerras. (Decca)

Over the entire history of recorded complete operas, precious few are universally acknowledged as being essential to any opera-lovers collection. Among those that qualify are the four that make up the Decca label’s Janáček series taped at Vienna’s Sofiensaal (for decades one of the most acoustically desirable recording spaces in Europe), with the Vienna Philharmonic under one of today’s premier Janáček interpreters, Sir Charles Mackerras. The series began with Katya Kabanova starring the exquisite Swedish soprano Elisabeth Söderström, who triumphed in this opera internationally. Söderström and Mackerras reunited later for Decca’s The Makropulos Case and Jenửfa.

Katya was the work that initiated Mackerras’s entry into Janáček’s unique sound world back in 1947, when he heard his mentor Vaclav Talich conduct this opera in Prague. Over the next three decades Mackerras would deepen his understanding of Katya, to the point where he was able to achieve a definitive interpretation in his 1978 recording. One can revel in his theatrical flair, as well as in his ear for the composer’s thorny – yet also supremely lyrical — melodic language. The profound expressiveness and ravishing colorations of the Vienna Philharmonic players make them full partners in this performance.

Of course, every Katya needs a glorious leading lady, and Söderström is certainly that — and how. It’s hard to imagine a more supremely musical, textually aware, and vocally shimmering Katya. She’s supported by an all-Czech cast including a former Brünnhilde, the formidable Nadezhda Kniplová (Kabanicha), and a gleaming tenor who made a major worldwide reputation for Italian and French roles, Petr Dvorský (Boris).



Gustafson, Palmer, Winter, McCauley, Adams; London Philharmonic, cond. A. Davis, dir. Lehnhoff.. (Kultur)

The 1988 Katya at Glyndebourne was one of that renowned English opera festival’s finest hours in its past quarter-century of performances. The heroes on this occasion are the conductor, Sir Andrew Davis (then the festival’s music director, and currently, of course, holding the same position at Lyric) and soprano Nancy Gustafson in the title role. Sir Andrew’s glorious command of the score is clearly relished by Glyndebourne’s resident orchestras, the London Philharmonic. With such strength in the pit, the cast can really take wing, especially the marvelous Gustafson, whose exceptionally warm “full lyric” soprano, willowy beauty, and remarkable physical grace combine to superb effect in her moving portrayal. She’s supported by Lyric and Glyndebourne favorite Felicity Palmer, utterly chilling as Kabanicha; the manly and ardent Boris of the late American tenor Barry McCauley; and the effervescent Varvara of mezzo Louise Winter. Under the knowing hand of director Nikolaus Lehnhoff, everyone is entirely believable visually, creating three-dimensional human beings, and their characterizations stay in one’s memory.

Katya Kabanova

November 24, 2009

A short featurette with Gavin Plumley on the music of Katya Kabanova.

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Backstage at Lyric #67

November 24, 2009

Brandon JAmerican tenor Brandon Jovanovich, winner of the highly prestigious Richard Tucker Award, has earned critical acclaim for his Lyric Opera debut role, Boris in Katya Kabanova.  He speaks with Roger Pines about the challenges of portraying this character, while also discussing his other roles in Czech repertoire and his background in theater. 

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Backstage at Lyric #66

November 20, 2009

Karita MatillaIn this podcast, internationally celebrated Finnish soprano Karita Mattila brings illuminating insights to the title role of Katya Kabanova.  She expresses her enthusiasm for Janácek's timeless masterpiece and for Jonathan Miller’s production, in which she is starring at Lyric after triumphing in it at the Metropolitan Opera. Roger Pines hosts.

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Backstage at Lyric #65

November 20, 2009


Katya Kabanova is   Janácek’s drama of forbidden love in a provincial Russian town. Join mezzo-soprano Judith Forst (Kabanicha), tenor Brandon Jovanovich (Boris), and conductor Markus Stenz for an in-depth look at a breathtakingly beautiful, deeply moving opera by the "Czech Puccini."

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Sir Andrew Davis Previews

"Why can't we fly like birds do?" asks gentle Katya, who's trapped in a marriage with a weak and insensitive husband, plagued by a criticizing mother-in-law, and suffocated by the mores of a provincial Russian town. Then along comes a man who offers her tenderness and love…

Katya Kabanova Commentary

Katya Kabanova
By Leoš Janáček

Commentary by Jesse Gram, Audience Education Manager

2009 Lyric Opera of Chicago
Original sound recordings of musical excerpts Licensed from Decca Music Group Limited, a division of Universal Music Group. All rights reserved. Post-production services provided by WFMT, Chicago. Mark Travis, Producer.

Katya Kabanova Commentary

Katya Kabanova
By Leoš Janáček

Commentary by Jesse Gram, Audience Education Manager

2009 Lyric Opera of Chicago
Original sound recordings of musical excerpts Licensed from Decca Music Group Limited, a division of Universal Music Group. All rights reserved. Post-production services provided by WFMT, Chicago. Mark Travis, Producer.

Katya Kabanova Commentary

Katya Kabanova
By Leoš Janáček

Commentary by Jesse Gram, Audience Education Manager

2009 Lyric Opera of Chicago
Original sound recordings of musical excerpts Licensed from Decca Music Group Limited, a division of Universal Music Group. All rights reserved. Post-production services provided by WFMT, Chicago. Mark Travis, Producer.

Katya Kabanova Commentary

Katya Kabanova
By Leoš Janáček

Commentary by Jesse Gram, Audience Education Manager

2009 Lyric Opera of Chicago
Original sound recordings of musical excerpts Licensed from Decca Music Group Limited, a division of Universal Music Group. All rights reserved. Post-production services provided by WFMT, Chicago. Mark Travis, Producer.

A Star You Should Know

Karita Mattila Katya"She's the most electrifying singing actress of our day, the kind of performer who drives the public into frenzies." That's how Musical America described the Finnish soprano when it named her the Musician of the Year in 2005.

In November and December, the megastar returns to Lyric in the title role of Janáček's Katya Kabanova. Her portrayal of one of the great tragic heroines in opera is sure to be a highlight of the 2009/10 season.

Discover more about this breathtaking artist by listening to the second installment of our podcast mini-series, A Star You Should Know. The 4-minute clip features commentary by general director William Mason and dramaturg Roger Pines, plus an aria excerpt from Schoenberg's Gurrelieder.


Excerpts from reviews of Katya Kabanova at the Met starring Karita Mattila in the acclaimed production that will be seen at Lyric:

"Charismatic and vocally gleaming ... Mattila captured the anguish of the lonely Katya, singing with a beguiling blend of cool Nordic sound and gleaming power." — The New York Times 

"Most of the thunder was inspired by Karita Mattila, who brought overwhelming conviction — vocal, physical and histrionic — to the heroine's plight ... statuesque beauty ... She sang exquisitely, with radiance, purity and power." — Financial Times 

"She projects the work's swirling clouds of torment and guilt with piercing accuracy ... it is rare to find one that is this spectacular" — Seen and Heard International 

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