Coming up in this week’s Arts – a new opera that’s just premiered in Prague based on Communist Czechoslovakia's most notorious show trial. On June 27th, 1950 Milada Horáková - a democratic MP and campaigner for women's rights - was hanged on trumped-up charges of treason and espionage, despite appeals for clemency from world figures including Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein. This is the first attempt to bring one of the darkest periods of Czechoslovakia’s past to the stage.
A choir on the stage of Prague's Kolowrat Theatre sings out a list of sentences for Milada Horáková and her twelve co-defendants, three of whom were also executed. The libretto is taken almost verbatim from real transcripts of the trial. This is modern Czech history as contemporary opera.
The defendants, chosen for their links to pre-war democratic parties, were falsely accused of conspiring to overthrow the communist regime. For three weeks they'd been beaten, tortured and made to rehearse their testimony under the watchful eye of Soviet advisers. But Milada Horáková, portrayed as the ringleader of the group, refused to learn her lines, and remained defiant to the end, as this archive recording from the trial attests:
"I have declared to the State Police that I remain faithful to my convictions, and that the reason I remain faithful to them is because I adhere to the ideas, the opinions and the beliefs of those who are figures of authority to me. And among them are two people who remain the most important figures to me, two people who made an enormous impression on me throughout my life. Those people are Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and Edvard Beneš. And I want to say something to those who were also inspired by those two men when forming their own convictions and their own ideas. I want to say this: no-one in this country should be made to die for their beliefs. And no-one should go to prison for them."
This speech, showing Horáková unbowed in the face of a brutal dictatorship, was cut from the official record of the show trial that was used as propaganda by the communists. The tape languished in the archives of Czech Radio for the next 55 years. When it was rediscovered in 2005 it served as a key source of inspiration for the opera's composer, Aleš Březina:
"She was a very courageous person. As a politician, she worked for the rights of women, back in the 1930s in Czechoslovakia. She was very courageous during the Nazi occupation. She was in the resistance and was arrested and sentenced to death [by the Nazis]. She survived only by a miracle. So I think she is a very operatic subject. You have an innocent person with a lot of positive aspects, in the middle of hate and aggression, and you have her as the ideal winner of this. Of course she was sentenced and killed, but in historical terms she is the proper winner of this trial."
"I don't see ‘Tomorrow Will…’ as my latest trophy, because this is really not about me. The fact that I was one of the co-initiators of this project, that's the only thing I can allow myself to be proud of. To quote Milada herself - 'I humbly surrender myself to the will of God'. As for me, I somebody who’s full of self-doubt and full of admiration for Milada Horáková."
For a better understanding of the period that so inspired the authors of the opera I went to see Oldřich Tůma, director of Prague’s Institute for Contemporary History:
“This was one of the worst periods in modern Czech history, so say 48 – 53 were years of really very harsh repression of Communist regime. Something like 250 persons were sentenced to death and executed. Hundreds of people were killed on the borders trying to escape from the country. Thousands and thousands spent long years in prison and many of them died, so this was really a very bad period.”
How important is she for the Czech people today?
“I think she’s really important as a real historical figure but even more as a symbol. A woman with a past as an anti-Nazi resistance hero and so on. She became a prominent symbol as a victim of the Communist regime as early as the 1950s, but more so after 1968 and then of course after 1989.”
But how much do people today know about Milada Horáková and how much interest will there be in this opera? I stopped a few people outside the theatre to find out.
"Not too much, because I was born in the 1980s, but she was a very important person in our history and she always will be."
And do you think the opera will be successful?
“I think it’s a topic for a movie. I’m not sure about opera or musicals or these kinds of arts. Because, I don’t know, music and death…I’m not sure in this case it could be suitable.”
The Kolowrat Theatre, though part of Prague's National Theatre, is a small stage with just 60 seats. But performances of Tomorrow Will...are already sold out for weeks in advance. It's a reflection of the growing interest in Czech society in one of the darkest periods of the country's recent past – a period which is gradually being rediscovered.
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