This music comes from one of the most successful Czech musicals, 'Joan of Arc'. Recently, the Ta Fantastika theatre in the centre of Prague kicked off the last one hundred performances of this original Czech musical, written by Jiri Hubac, with music by Ondrej Soukup and lyrics by his wife, Gabriela Osvaldova. But that does not mark the end of the musical altogether, because later it will travel abroad.
The dramatic fate of the French Saint and national heroine Joan of Arc had always attracted a lot of artists, but never before so many of them let themselves be inspired by her tragic fate as the case was recently, at the end of the millenium - Frenchman Luc Besson in film, Canadian Christian Duguay on TV, German Leo Linder in a novel, and theatre director Josef Bednarik in a musical performed in Prague.
Historians say that's because a young, strong and beautiful country girl has become a symbol of resistance against mighty rulers, an example of patriotism that usually comes when the nation's fate is at stake. Joan of Arc was a 15th century French heroine, who heard voices that called on her to go and protect her country, and who later won over the English army but was burnt at the stake at the age of 18. In 1920 Joan of Arc was canonized by the Catholic church.
In the musical, the role of Joan alternates between two prominent Czech pop stars, Bara Basikova and Lucie Bila. Bila is the most popular Czech singer, and usually wins the majority of votes from TV viewers in a vote organized by Czech TV stations annually. But Lucie Bila also succeeded to win the most prestigious prize awarded in the Czech Republic every year to actors, opera and musical singers and ballet dancers, called Thalia . She received it for the best female performance of the year in a musical - and it was for her role in Joan of Arc. After the ceremony Lucie said that while a singing career is limited by time, acting provides at least a bit of immortality. "Moreover, I'm a person for whom just standing behind the mike is simply not enough - I must express myself with the help of movements and gestures," the singer said, adding that the figure of Joan provides numerous styles of interpretation because it offers all possible emotions which people have inside, even those which have remained unresolved. "I let myself be burnt at the stake twenty times a month, and I simply love those weeping ladies and even young couples touched by the story. To ease the atmosphere a bit, I at least try to chuckle in front of the curtain when the piece is over", Lucie Bila confessed.
The musical was premiered in Prague in March 2000, and I asked the composer, Ondrej Soukup, how he had gone about composing music for a full length musical? He told me for long it seemed to him he had enough time, but in summer 1999 he realized he had to start working hard:
"I started composing in summer, when I learnt that the premiere would be in March next year. And in autumn I began to feel a real fear when director Bednarik came to see me and wanted to listen to what I'd composed, but I only had fifteen or twenty minutes of music ready. In December, I was half way through, and felt a bit uneasy again because I was told that 12,000 tickets had already been sold. From then, I worked from five in the morning to eight in the evening, and could not do anything else at all."
Ondrej Soukup and his wife, Gabriela Osvaldova have been a song-writing team for quite long, but mostly of pop songs. So how was the work on a musical which takes up a serious historical theme?
"I let myself be led by Gabriela's lyrics. We were working in two separate rooms, Gabina brought me her texts and I immediately sat at the piano and started composing. The texts were so influential, that I composed the music very easily, I simply followed the story. I tried to include different kinds of music - a bit of church music, French songs and Celtic tunes. I think that I was quite successful - judging from the fact that even now, after two and a half years, the show is always sold out."
According to Ondrej Soukup, a musical without a love story is not exactly what the audience expects. But, he said we could not change the fate of Joan, so we at least added two new characters - Raymond, a village boy who knows Joan since her childhood and faithfully follows her wherever she goes, and a knight called Lair, the commander of the French army - so there is a kind of a relation towards those two men indicated in the story.
The authors of the musical worked on Joan of Arc with the basic idea that a musical must be a commercial success. Ondrej Soukup told me that Mr. Bednarik kept on visiting him and asking 'when are you going to write that piece for the radio?' And their calculations proved correct - not only does Joan of Arc sell out the Ta Fantastika theatre in Prague, but a CD has been released and some of its songs are played on the radio, too.
There were many stumbling blocks awaiting the creators of Joan of Arc - ranging from her having an omen of saintliness which could have made her a stiff, lifeless figure, to the depiction of battles in such a small space. Using various kinds of technique proved to be a good idea - the first figure coming to the stage is that of an Operator, who moves the story forward by pressing a computer keyboard. He comments on the story, and himself plays six different characters. Other explanations are made with the help of subtitles, computer animation and video projection. There are other multi-media devices involved, including side screens, trapdoors and a huge transparent front screen through which the spectator can see what's happening behind the scene. And that's something that previous musicals staged in the Czech Republic lacked.
As I said, Joan of Arc's journey is not at its end yet. On October 24th, it will be presented at an international festival of music theatres in Cardiff, Wales, and then it will embark to Athens, Barcelona and some other European metropolises.
The Jewish museum in Prague will re-open for visitors after the recent floods next Tuesday. The only place in the whole complex which will remain inaccessible for at least a year is the Pinkas synagogue. But a new attraction might be a new route at the Jewish cemetery, which will include the oldest tombstone as well as the latest one. It was created because the old one has been damaged by water. Also several old trees in the cemetery must have been cut down. The Robert Guttmann Gallery which is part of the Museum, will open soon, in early November, with an exhibition of pictures by a young Prague painter Michal Singer. Regular concerts of Jewish music in the Spanish synagogue will start again on October 15th.
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