Psychoanalysis and opera both have an uneven relationship to feminism, to put it mildly. The former, even when challenging the disorienting, traumatic quality of patriarchy, is a product of that same power. The practice’s roots lie in Jean-Martin Charcot’s Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, which turned the confinement of so-called “hysterical” women into a public spectacle. Freud restored to the hysteric a kind of dignity by finding meaning in her speech and body, opening a space for complex and textured subjectivity; he strove to describe how unhappy bourgeois sexual morality made people; he emancipated psychic difficulty by placing it at the center our self-image. All the same, Freud got his female patients wrong, sometimes wildly. As a bourgeois Viennese patriarch, he was hardly an exception to the world he inhabited. 

Much of this runs contiguous with opera. The art form has the scope to dramatize the worst aspects of patriarchy with sympathy and care. However, many of its stages are filled with crushingly familiar, pathologically-revisited stories that reduce intensely gendered suffering to titillating spectacle. These are often mediated through flatly-conceived characters with stereotyped motivations, and climax in death and suicide. As both Freud and opera scholar Catherine Clément have pointed out, the glorious music too often softens our sense of this ugliness. 

Leoš Janáček and Sigmund Freud were born two years and four miles apart in nineteenth-century Moravia. Both were modernists who produced raw and disturbing accounts of the human psyche, in opera and prose respectively. Both were, in different ways, outsiders: Janáček as a provincial backwoodsman mostly overlooked during his career; Freud as a Jew in an increasingly hostile Vienna. Both were atheists suspicious of religious institutions, and served up acidic critiques of bourgeois morality. 

Dikoj (Alexander Vassiliev) and Kabanicha (Katarina Dalayman) in Damiano Michieletto’s production of “Káťa Kabanová”

Such critiques are especially potent as they relate to both men’s attempts to explore women’s experiences, sexuality, and subjectivity. Janáček’s operas offer richly-drawn female characters who have sympathetic and defiant relationships with social mores. In “The Cunning Little Vixen,” the titular character tries to drum up some quasi-feminist independence of spirit from the hens—at least before she slaughters them all. “The Makropulos Case” is a wily, otherworldly exploration of sexuality and power; “Jenůfa” dares the audience to incredible extremes of sympathy, for both a title character brutalized by small-town life, and, more radically, the infanticidal Kostelnička. “Kat’a Kabanova” is a suffocating picture of sexual mores; director David Alden has described its music as combining “rage at the human condition and compassion for people.” 

But this is hardly unequivocal. Vicious matriarchs and femme fatales have a reactionary imaginary pull in these works too, and death comes to almost all of Janáček’s women. Offstage, he kept his wife in a similarly miserable living situation: Zdenka Janáček’s letters reveal a husband who was at best difficult and at worst brutal and cruel; the composer’s affair with singer Gabriela Horvátová drove Zdenka to a suicide attempt. Nor did he attempt to conceal from his wife his lengthy, unrequited infatuation with the 37-years younger Kamila Stösslová. 

One could go on. Cultures of exploitation and abuse have long existed in both psychoanalysis and opera. Both occupy an ambivalent space in their relationship to feminism, and in the way they address feminist questions. But that does not mean they have nothing of power or significance to say. In the form of “Káťa Kabanova” and Freud’s writings from the year of its premiere 1921, they come together to press on something true and terrifying about psychic life. 

Damiano Michieletto’s production of “Káťa Kabanová” opened the Glyndebourne Opera Festival this year. It dispensed with the trappings of naturalism: the Volga river, the garden where Káťa  and Boris meet each other, the streets of the town, and so on. Instead it takes place in a clean white space with moving walls set at acute angles. These walls enclose Káťa , as if in one of Francis Bacon’s vitrines. The interior is deathly in the sense that it is sterile; it suggests, in its blankness, both transcendence and obliteration. Paolo Fantin’s designs, evocative of Giorgio de Chirico’s surrealism, take us into Káťa’s mind.  

Michieletto’s production reflects Janáček’s fascination with the self’s inner workings, the same contours of consciousness that Freud explored in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, from 1921. It’s no coincidence that the single piece of furniture onstage is a couch. An expansive grasp of individual psychology is present in not just Michieletto’s production, but also in the composer’s own writings. In his epigrammatic 1924 essay, “On Naturalism,” Janáček described the place of interiority in his creative imagination: 

There exists in each of us an inner environment…the sequences of all cognitive processes, in general: all consciousness…All that has fallen into it—even perhaps unnoticed—disintegrates, collects, crisscrosses, pushes through, disappears—but never vanishes…This seeping—whether conscious or unconscious—is that inner environment. We see through it, we hear through it—through it we more or less even exist

This is a multilayered Freudian unconscious where nothing is ultimately lost, only buried. It’s a vibrant picture of selfhood that, like Freud, sees consciousness in a state of perpetual transition. Freud and Janáček shared no personal connections that we know of, yet their respective works from this time seem to channel the same intellectual impulses. For a time, Freud and his colleagues cultivated an interest in telepathy. 

In 1921, Freud published Mass Psychology and the Analysis of the “I,” which takes apart wholesale the idea of the vicissitudes of the self counterpoised, wrongly, with the “realness” of the outside world. Groups are defined by what Freud calls “libidinal attachments”—i.e., love—just as much as individuals. To make a group, we substitute their ideals for our own, instigating a complex interplay between self and society. Most importantly Freud’s reflections on individual and group psychology reveal the way that, as Jacqueline Rose puts it, “we are peopled by others. The psyche is a social space.… We exist through the others that make up the storehouse of the mind.” What makes “Kát’a” such an emotionally shattering experience is the similar peopling of its title heroine by others, and the complex interrelation between the “inside” and “outside” of the self. 

In 2017, Kenji Fujishima suggested in VAN that “Jenůfa” is an opera of forgiveness. “Káťa,” then, is the quintessential opera of shame; an affect that represents both a shattering and intensification of the relationship between the self and the world. In Touching Feeling, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick sees in shame a “double movement…toward painful individuation, toward uncontrollable relationality.” Shame etches with painful intensity the outlines of our selves, concurrently isolating and spotlighting. It also reveals the way we are constricted and constructed through the eyes of others, introducing a painful contingency to our very being.

Varvara (Aigul Akhmetshina), Kabanicha (Katarina Dalayman), Kudrjaš (Thomas Atkins), Káťa (Kateřina Kněžíková), Gláša (Sarah Pring), Dikoj (Alexander Vassiliev), Tichon (Nicky Spence) and, above, Angel (Robin Gladwin)

This vulnerability touches on something essential to opera. The form turns on the extraordinary intimacy of an unamplified human voice, radiating out the intimate vibrations of one body, and the simultaneous massiveness of its pageantry: an individual on a grand stage, which, even when empty, always implies the largeness and anonymity of the social field. 

“I am too ashamed,” Káťa  confides in Varvara of the “strange desires” for a lover that haunt her. “It is too shameful even to think of it.” Later on, Kabanicha calls Kát’a a “shameless girl.” This is the most shameful insult of all, as it betrays what the world of the opera most fears: sexuality without shame, unbuttoned from patriarchal regulation, polymorphous and perverse. It is this sexuality that Káťa tries and fails to liberate inside herself, one rendered in parallel in Janáček’s other late masterpiece “The Cunning Little Vixen,” where sexual impulses are portrayed as amoral, ruthless, unashamed, and burningly vital.  

In “Káťa,” feeling is theater; shame in particular its apogee. Sedgwick echoes this idea, calling shame a “theatrical performance.” Kabanicha chides Kát’a at the beginning of Act Two, when the younger girl wonders: “Why should I weep just for others to see me?” “If you really loved your husband you’d learn to weep for him,” Kabanicha bites back, “and if you cannot do it, you might at least pretend a little. It would look better.” To build on Sedgwick, shaming, too, is a performance. To be ashamed is to be caught in the spotlight of the social field.  

Perhaps the most challenging moment of the opera is its final line. In performance, Kabanicha’s final words are often addressed directly to the audience, as Káťa lies dead. “I must thank you, friends and neighbors, for your kindness,” she sings. Janáček’s stage direction instructs her to bow “to this side and that.” The audience is pulled into a sudden, terrible complicity with the corrosive shaming that has come before. Even more damningly, “kindness” is  also sometimes translated as “help.” We feel revolted and uncomfortable at our implied participation in Kát’a’s death. It is our own personal shaming moment.     

We can only say that the aim of all life is death,” Freud writes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, one of his most speculative and disturbing accounts of our secret innervations. This is also where Freud posits what came to be known as the “Death Drive” (Todestrieb). While now widely misunderstood as simple suicidal impulses, Freud’s original theory is something more nuanced. The essence of drive, or Trieb, is a longing for stasis or oblivion that comes from a primal refusal of exterior stimuli. Exhaustible and unquenchable, it forms an asymmetric war in life itself, where drive presses against what we might think of as our best, self-preserving, interests. We are in search of a primordial quiet.  

Our “organic drives,” Freud writes, “are conservative… predisposed to regression and the restoration of prior states.”

This force animates and rends Káťa. Her yearning is not just for Boris. Anna Picard hints at this in an essay on the opera written for Opera Holland Park: “To Káťa, sex is a form of self-annihilation, a surrendering or extinguishing of will, as is made explicit in her first encounter with Boris. Misery, shame and despair stem from her unquenchable desire for him.” In Michieletto’s production, a black veil is drawn over Káťa as she pledges her loyalty to her husband by Tichon and Kabanicha.  

She longs explicitly for death, perhaps as punishment but more, I think, as a kind of stillness; something anticipated in her religious reveries in Act One. “I always felt so happy when I was in church,” she sings, “it was as if I was entering paradise. Then I would see no one, hear no one, and I never knew when the service was really over.” 

Káťa (Kateřina Kněžíková) and Varvara (Aigul Akhmetshina)

This exquisite vision of transcendence in dreams—“I felt as if I was flying, soaring and flying!”—pivots to reveal something else. “A dreadful sin threatens me, like an abyss that yawns before me, and I am slipping, falling, pushed by unseen hands to destruction!” Káťa offers a picture of our fundamental ambivalence, selves riven by irreconcilable wishes and forces: “Deep in my inmost heart such strange desires are stirring! My will is powerless against them all….When my tongue utters a prayer, my mind’s on something very different. It’s as if the devil came to tempt me, so softly whispering horrible things.” 

Káťa is overwhelmed from within as much as without. But this does not mean that her predicament is solely “internal,” or unpolitical. It is the very relentlessness and restlessness of drive that allows for the unlimited and interminable return of trauma and guilt. Both are inflicted on her by a vicious and unforgiving world, which Káťa visits back on herself.  

We can understand Káťa’s religious compulsions with Freud’s idea of drive in view. Her longing for freedom—represented by dancers in Michieletto’s production—might also be for the sort of release or restoration of the inanimate state Freud described in his work at this time. There is a line that runs through Freud’s work, from his early exploration of the compulsive aspects of neurotic behavior—especially religious obsessions, tinged with taboo ideas and wishes—to what he later called the compulsion to repeat (Wiederholungszwang)—the most explicit surface manifestation of that force called Trieb.    

Eventually Freud would call this, following his friend Romain Rolland, “the oceanic feeling.” There is no ocean in “Káťa.” But there is plenty of water. In the opera, the Volga is an omnipresent threat, swelled by the storm. In Act Three it is given a chthonic, wordless voice, and roars in the final bars: the chorus intones a vowel sound, like the Volga singing. It is the sound of Trieb. It calls, more softly, to Káťa during her Act Three monologue. 

Beyond the Volga, there is also the great storm from which the townspeople shelter in Act Three, beneath frescoes of the apocalypse. Váňa talks about lightning conductors to try and calm those sheltering from the deluge. Káťa herself is a conductor of these psychic rather than electrical energies; the course through which Trieb must run, even as it burns her up. Káťa and Boris swear to go to the end of the world with each other. This end, it seems, involves a divinely-ordained flood. 

Can we hear something of Freud in the roar of the Volga, or the intense crisscrossing of Janáček’s motifs? Janáček’s idiosyncratic approach to word-setting in his famous “speech melodies” has a deeply Freudian aspect, for a start. The composer’s vocal writing is conversational in character, mimicking the rhythms and shape of everyday Czech speech. This is not the transcription of speech into music, but an intensification of language—stretching, heightening, distending words and syllables—setting loose the meanings charged inside even the most mundane utterances. In this it is analogous to the speech of the psychoanalytic session, where the most ordinary remarks or anecdotes—a misremembered name, a striking turn of phrase —always exist at the level of metaphor, gateways through which ideas, affects, and hidden meanings are about to burst through. 

Káťa (Kateřina Kněžíková)

Janáček does not write narrative Wagnerian music-drama, but music of evocation and gesture, defined especially in “Káťa” by motives that appear and disappear in his orchestral texture, like symptomatic phrases or obsessive neurotic ideas finding their way to the surface of consciousness. This is not without precedent. Analyst Darian Leader likens the idea of “working through” (Durcharbeitung) in psychoanalysis to sonata form; Freud himself, though personally hostile to music, calls on the idea of melodic motif to describe the ideational motifs of free association in Interpreting Dreams.  

Motifs struggle against each other, overlaid or running in parallel in an intractable, unresolved way, speaking to the Freudian vision of us as unreconciled. This results in an explosive expressivity in certain repeated melodic gestures—the falling and leaping line in the violins from the Act One coda springs to mind. 

In “Káťa Kabanova,” these fragments have an especially obsessive, destructive force: the grasping, desperate brass from the leaping gesture of the opera’s very final bars, whose syncopated rhythm bursts through the pulse and annihilates furious string ostinato above, which seems to gasp for air; so too the striving timpani line of Act One, a simple fourth that batters the act to its claustrophobic conclusion. It is the sound of Trieb, knocking. ¶