Cunning Little Vixen

Nature on the stage

On the surface, Cunning Little Vixen is simple enough: a musical biography of a fox based on a comic strip filled with furry familiars. It could be seen as little more than an opera for children – it’s based on a comic strip and everything – but it’s impossible to dismiss. It contains some of the most moving music ever written, vivifying life’s most profound and eternal truths.

Modestly described by the composer as a “merry thing with a sad end”, Vixen is a thing of wonder. The story unfolds as a series of seemingly illogical scenes that have little to no care for constraints of time, location or the appropriate order of seasons. Despite its episodic nature, one theme pervades; the cycle of life.

We witness two such cycles. That of an audacious vixen, and that of a Forester, a man on the wrong side of middle age, who over the course of the piece becomes accepting, wise and benevolent. All logic tells us the Forester cannot understand the little frog at the end of the piece, chirruping about the fact that his grandfather told him about the Forester, but the extraordinary music prompted by this tiny moment illuminates the instinctive bond that exists between man and nature – a bond that in these days of climate change debate we ignore at our peril.

Of course, from a production perspective, profoundly human as the themes are, we still need to figure out how to present ‘Nature’ on the stage. Ours is man-made. Human fashions and accessories are repurposed to create the host of vibrantly coloured animal characters. Similarly, manufactured materials are reinvented to create the natural world; Wood is bleached of its colour, processed if you like, steel tortured into trees, cotton woven into flat surfaces, those surfaces brought to brilliant seasonal colour by light. The animal world is as brightly coloured as a David Attenborough documentary – seemingly unnatural yet totally real. The human world, on the other hand, is monochromatic, thereby holding a magnifying glass to its vivid parallel world that is full of surprises and life for life’s sake.

‘Nature’ is a big place and we are here for a short visit only. Its profound, gauche, simple splendour will always be here. Cunning Little Vixen was Janácek’s personal valentine to the human condition in all its inexplicable, maddening, fierce and beautiful inconsistency. The unexpected majesty, grandeur and emotion of the final sixty seconds of Vixen says it all. The essence of life is a mystery: we can’t fathom it, we can’t harness it, we can’t quantify what it is…but we all instinctively feel the unifying power of the indefinable force, much like music. Musicologists across the centuries have been able to explain the elements of music and how they might be organised, but they are unable to find an explanation for the soul-deep effect of this natural, mysterious, mighty and magical force. All the analysis in the world can’t tell us why, but with a fist pounding the heart we can all say: ‘It gets you right here’. The end of Cunning Little Vixen has ‘got me right there’ from the first time I saw the piece as an 18-year-old student. Now, as an almost 60-year-old, that ‘there’ is still being ‘got’.

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