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Quirk of Nature: Janacek's 'Cunning Little Vixen'

In the four centuries or so since the first operas were written, operatic stories have been inspired by an astonishing array of literary sources -- from Nordic legends and Greek classics, to romance novels and historical fiction.

Still, there's one composer who may win the prize for operas based on wide-ranging sources. In 1920, Leos Janacek turned to science fiction for his opera The Excursions of Mr. Broucek, setting one of its scenes on the moon, where the local residents turn out to be fussy, art aficionados. Another of his operas, The Makropulos Case, is a sort time travel story, in which a magic formula lets the main character live for hundreds of years. But when it comes to unorthodox subject matter, Janacek may have outdone even himself with The Cunning Little Vixen, basing it on what was essentially a comic strip.

These days, with Hollywood churning out big budget movies based on comic book characters such as Iron Man, the Silver Surfer and the Incredible Hulk, a comics-based opera about a cute little fox may sound a bit tame. But in its day, Janacek's opera did stick out as something different -- and actually, it still is.

The composer got the idea for his Vixen from a serialized newspaper story, with drawings, detailing the adventures of a clever fox cub. She's captured by the local Forester, grows up on his farm, and then escapes back to the woods to raise a family. It sounds simple but Janáček, who wrote his own text, has much to say about the connections between people and animals, and the cyclical nature of life and death.

So, instead of regal kings and consumptive heroines, this opera stars badgers, dogs, chickens and frogs, with bit parts for a flurry of other curious critters -- and even a handful of humans. Along the way they tell a gently cautionary tale that's charming, frightening, tragic -- and in the end, life-affirming.

On World of Opera, Lisa Simeone presents Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen in a production from the Maggio Musicale in Florence, led by conductor Seiji Ozawa. The stars include soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian as the Vixen, baritone Quinn Kelsey as the Forester and soprano Lauren Curnow as the Fox.

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Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.
Tom Huizenga
Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.