Bitter Immortality: Janacek's 'Makropulos Case'

In the popular title song of the 1980 movie hit Fame, the refrain begins with a brash declaration: "I'm gonna live forever." At first, that may sound like simple, youthful ambition -- a vow to exceed all expectations. But it might also serve as a warning, about the price that's paid when success outlives the exuberance that spawned it, and the joy it once provided.

WOO-1207-Makropolous-300-2The movie, along with its stage and TV spinoffs, and a 2009 remake, tells the story of a group of talented youngsters fighting to make the grade at a prestigious school for the performing arts. Along the way, it poses complex questions about what they're willing to sacrifice for a fame that lasts forever: Friendship? Loyalty? Honor? Love?

Similar questions arise from Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. The title character in that famous novel is so devoted to selfless pleasure that to sustain it, he makes a Faustian bargain. As a result, he stays young forever, while only his portrait reflects the damage his unprincipled life does to his soul -- damage he doesn't see until it's too late.

That same theme, questioning the price of immortality, drives Leos Janacek's grim thriller The Makropulos Case. Emilia Marty, the opera's main character, is a world-famous singer -- 337 years old, and just beginning to feel her age! She's determined to keep on living no matter what, or whom, she has to give up in the process. By the time her story ends, Emilia's ruthless scheming has led her to the secret formula for an even longer life. Yet she decides to give it up -- and ultimately wonders if her astounding longevity has been worth even part of the joy she abandoned to achieve it.

Janacek himself knew a little something about long life, and the combination of pleasure and frustration it can sometimes bring. His greatest success didn't come until after a production of his opera Jenufa made him famous when he was 62. Many of his greatest works were composed when he was past 70 -- and a number of them, including The Makropulos Case, were inspired by his passion for a woman half his age, who never returned his feelings.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Janacek's The Makropulos Case from the Maggio Musicale in Florence, with soprano Angela Denoke as Emilia, tenor Miro Dvorsky as Gregor, one of many men who fall under her spell, and soprano Jolana Fogasova as Kristina, an ambitious young performer who idolizes Emilia until the bitter truth of her long life is finally revealed. The production is led by conductor Zubin Mehta.