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ARKIB : 12/04/2004

Czechs' Olympic hockey triumph in Nagano inspires opera

PRAGUE April 11 - The loud rough and tumble of ice hockey is a far cry from the cultural refinements of opera.

But Prague's prestigious National Theatre has matched the two very different worlds, coming up with the idea of staging a contemporary opera inspired by the Czech national ice hockey team's gold medal success in the 1988 winter Olympics in the Japanese city of Nagano.

``Why can't the hockey player represent the modern-day hero, the strong battleman in both physical and mental terms?'' said the opera's composer Martin Smolka.

The world premiere of ``Nagano'' will be staged on Thursday evening in the Estates Theatre, complete with singers dressed in hockey jerseys and an orchestra chief dressed in the traditional striped referees jacket.

Set in the heart of the Czech capital's historic old town, the beautiful grand Estates Theatre - one of three National Theatre venues - has an equally glorious history; it was here in 1787 that Mozart conducted the world premiere of his opera Don Giovanni.

That's why ``Nagano'' has provoked reproval among often-conservative opera fans. ``Even within the orchestra,'' admitted Smolka, a 45-year-old Czech.

``The 20th century has already weakened the opera genre enough, sometimes it is transposed into bizarre spheres,'' he emphasised in an interview with AFP.

``Our opera is even rather conventional, using characteristic traits such as pathos and excitement,'' he added.

``Nagano is not a mockery, a parody or an attack on anyone's honour. Of course it is unusual but my God we need something to happen, otherwise opera is dead,'' insists the show's producer, Ondrej Havelka.

Even though it hasn't even been seen yet publicly the show has met with an icy reception among conservative opera buffs, largely due to its completely-masculine theme.

The libretto's author, comedian Jaroslav Dusek, however, is keen to reassure people about the show's female elements, pointing out the chorus of women and two female characters - a geisha and a Japanese spectator who falls in love with a Czech player.

``And also a dancer who represents the puck,'' he added.

And, points out Dusek, the opera is composed not of traditional acts but of three periods just like in a hockey match.

``The first period takes place in the changing rooms, the second recreates the matches with the United States, Canada and Russia and the final period is devoted to the medal ceremony,'' says Dusek.

The tenors, baritones and bass stars of the National Theatre transformed themselves for this occasion into a large array of real-life characters: world hockey stars such as Dominik Hasek and Jaromir Jagr, former Czech president Vaclav Havel and the former head of the Olympic committee Juan Antonio Samaranch.

``The forwards are personified as tenors as in the tradition in opera for heroes. As for Hasek, a goalkeeper nicknamed ``God'' by supporters, we opted for a double tenor with the voice of an angel,'' explained Smolka.

However it is the third goalkeeper of the team, Milan Hnilicka, who is the principle character in the work.

``Unluckily, he did not play a single minute at Nagano and the conclusion was that he did not get his gold medal afterwards, because Samaranch believed that this fellow in a tracksuit standing at the side of his teammates in sweat-soaked jerseys was an intruder from the public,'' said the composer.

The National Theatre obtained special permission from all the real people featured in the production.

``I have never been in an opera,'' said Hnilicka, who nowadays is goalkeeper with the Los Angeles Kings in North America's National Hockey League (NHL).

``Unfortunately I will not be in Prague on April 8 so the premiere will be held without me,'' he said. - AFP

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