The Cunning Little Vixen

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The Cunning Little Vixen
Opera by Leoš Janáček
Leos Janacek relief.jpg
Relief of the composer by Julius Pelikán
Native title
Czech: Příhody lišky Bystroušky
Other titleAdventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears
LibrettistLeoš Janáček
Based onserialized novella by Rudolf Těsnohlídek and Stanislav Lolek
6 November 1924 (1924-11-06)

The Cunning Little Vixen (Czech: Příhody lišky Bystroušky; alternative English title: Tales of Vixen Sharp-Ears) is a Czech-language opera by Leoš Janáček, composed in 1921 to 1923.[1] Its libretto was adapted by the composer from a 1920 serialized novella, Liška Bystrouška, by Rudolf Těsnohlídek, which was first published in the newspaper Lidové noviny (with illustrations by Stanislav Lolek).[2]

The opera incorporates Moravian folk music and rhythms as it recounts the life of a clever (alternative reading: sharp-eared) fox and accompanying wildlife, as well as a few humans, and their small adventures while traversing their lifecycles.[3][4] Described as a comic opera,[5] it has nonetheless been noted to contain a serious theme.[6] Interpretations of the work remain varied, ranging from children's entertainment to tragedy.[4]

Title translation[edit]

Broken down from the original Czech, the title is

Příhody = Tales (or Adventures),
lišky = of Vixen (i.e. genitive case, one fox, female),
Bystroušky = Sharp-Ears (double meaning: pointed [ears], clever, sly).

There is no mention in the Czech of a diminutive ("little"), although this idea is included in both the German (Das schlaue Füchslein) and recent (since 1980s) English versions of the opera's name. It was probably the German name, used for the 1965 Felsenstein film, that established the English "cunning little", ignoring the important double meaning in "Sharp-Ears." The first three audio recordings, all from the Czech company Supraphon (Neumann 1957, Gregor 1972, Neumann 1980) used, naturally, the original Czech name. Then Decca recorded the opera with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1981, and this widely circulated release made The Cunning Little Vixen the international, if inaccurate, standard.

Composition history[edit]

When Janáček discovered Těsnohlídek's comic-strip-inspired story and decided to turn it into an opera, he began work by meeting with the author and beginning a study of animals. With this understanding of the characters involved, his own 70 years of life experience, and an undying, unrequited love for the much younger, married Kamila Stösslová, he began work on the opera. He transformed the originally comedic cartoon into a philosophical reflection on the cycle of life and death by including the death of the vixen. As with other operas by older composers, this late opera shows a deep understanding of life leading to a return to simplicity.

It was given its premiere performance on 6 November 1924 in National Theatre Brno conducted by František Neumann, with Ota Zítek as director and Eduard Milén as stage designer.

Performance history[edit]

The opera received its Italian premiere at La Scala in 1958 with Mariella Adani in the title role. The work was first staged in England in 1961 by the Sadler's Wells Opera Company (now the English National Opera) with June Bronhill in the title, albeit with a tenor Fox (Kevin Miller); the director was Colin Graham, with conductor Colin Davis, and scenery and costume designs by Barry Kay.[7] A production by David Pountney was mounted by the three UK national companies in the 1980s, first being seen with Scottish Opera at the 1980 Edinburgh Festival, then Welsh National Opera in London the following year and finally with English National Opera in June 1988;[8] nearly 40 years on Pountney supervised a revival by Welsh National Opera in Cardiff and on tour.[9]

In 1981, the New York City Opera mounted a production in English based on images created by Maurice Sendak and conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas in his company debut. It starred soprano Gianna Rolandi as Vixen Sharp-Ears and baritone Richard Cross as the Forester. Glyndebourne Festival Opera staged it in 2012, directed by Melly Still, and a revival was included in the Glyndebourne Festival for 2016 with Christopher Purves as the Forester and Elena Tsallagova as the Vixen, conductor Jakub Hrůša and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

In May 2014 the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, performed an innovative version directed by Yuval Sharon. This production returned the opera to its roots by utilizing animation and hand drawn video sets by the artists Bill Barminski and Christopher Louie of Walter Robot Studios. The production featured the use of hole-in-the-wall carnival cutouts to place the singers' heads on the animated bodies of the animal characters. Glimmerglass Opera staged a new production in the summer of 2018.


Monument of Bystrouška, Janáček's opera The Cunning Little Vixen at Hukvaldy, Janáček's hometown
Role Voice type Premiere cast, 6 November 1924
(Conductor: František Neumann)
Bystrouška (Sharp-Ears, the Vixen) soprano Hana Hrdličková-Zavřelová
Zlatohřbítek (Gold-Spur, the Fox) soprano or high mezzo-soprano[10] Božena Snopková
Forester's wife (Revírníková) contralto
Schoolmaster (Rektor) tenor Antonín Pelc
Forester (Revírník) baritone Arnold Flögl
Supporting roles:
Bystrouška's child soprano
Chocholka, a crested hen soprano Vlasta Kubiková
Cricket child soprano
Frantík soprano Milada Rabasová
Frog child soprano
Grasshopper child soprano
Jay soprano
Midge child soprano
Mrs. Páskova soprano Jelena Jezicová
Pepík soprano Bozena Polaková
Rooster soprano
Lapák the dog mezzo-soprano Marta Dobruská
Owl contralto
Woodpecker contralto
Mosquito tenor
Pásek tenor Bedřich Zavadil
Badger bass
Harašta, the poacher bass Ferdinand Pour
Priest bass


Act 1[edit]

In the forest, the animals and insects are playing and dancing. The Forester enters and lies down against a tree for a nap. A curious Vixen Cub (usually sung by a young girl), inquisitively chases a frog right into the lap of the surprised forester who forcibly takes the vixen home as a pet. Time passes (in the form of an orchestral interlude) and we see the Vixen, now grown up into a young adult (and sung by a soprano), tied up in the forester's yard with the conservative old dachshund. Fed up with life in confinement, the vixen chews through her rope, attacks the Cock and Chocholka the hen, kills the other chickens, jumps over the fence and runs off to freedom.

Act 2[edit]

The vixen takes over a badger's home and kicks him out. In the inn, the pastor, the forester, and the schoolmaster drink and talk about their mutual infatuation with the gypsy girl Terynka. The drunken schoolmaster leaves the inn and mistakes a sunflower behind which the vixen is hiding for Terynka and confesses his devotion to her. The forester, also on his way home, sees the vixen and fires two shots at her, sending her running. Later, the vixen, coming into her womanhood, meets a charming boy fox, and they retire to the badger's home. An unexpected pregnancy and a forest full of gossipy creatures necessitate their marriage, which rounds out the act.

Act 3[edit]

The poacher Harasta is engaged to Terynka and is out hunting in preparation for their marriage. He sets a fox trap, which the numerous fox and vixen cubs mock. Harasta, watching from a distance, shoots and kills the vixen, sending her children running. At Harasta's wedding, the forester sees the vixen's fur, which Harasta gave to Terynka as a wedding present, and flees to the forest to reflect. He returns to the place where he met the vixen, and sits at the tree grieving the loss of both the vixen and Terynka. His grief grows until, just as in the beginning of the opera, a frog unexpectedly jumps in his lap, the grandson of the one who did so in Act 1. This reassurance of the cycle of death leading to new life gives his heart a deep peace.


Apart from The Excursions of Mr. Brouček, this is Janáček's lightest opera, and, despite the titular vixen's death at the end of the work, it stands in contrast to the often brutally serious nature of operas such as Jenůfa and Káťa Kabanová. In The Cunning Little Vixen, the composer moved away from the more conversational style of previous and subsequent operas in favor of a more folk-like style, and wove into its fabric some of his most experimental opera concepts (ballet, mime, and orchestral interludes).

Janáček based The Cunning Little Vixen's tonality on modes (similarly to much output during his last decade), expanding the music's harmonic range through the utilisation of the seventh and ninth chords.[11] The composition makes frequent use of folk-influenced rhythms and "sčasovka" (personally-coined term for a short motif), while it has been noted to contain similarities to the music of French composer Claude Debussy.[11]

At Janáček's request, the final scene from The Cunning Little Vixen was performed at his funeral in 1928.


  • Prague National Theatre Chorus and Orchestra/Bohumil Gregor (Supraphon SU 3071-2612)
  • Royal Opera House Chorus and Orchestra/Simon Rattle, recorded 1991 (Chandos 3101(2), sung in English)
  • Wiener Staatsopernchor & Philharmoniker/Charles Mackerras, recorded 1981 (Decca 417 129-2)
  • Orchestre de Paris/Charles Mackerras, video recorded 1995 (Kultur D4544, OCLC 698051148; Medici Arts, OCLC 698051148)
  • London Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle, 2020 (LSO Live, LSO0850)


  • Orchestral suite of the opera by Václav Talich, performed by Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Václav Talich
  • Orchestral suite of the opera by Václav Talich, performed by Boston Symphony Orchestra, conductor Erich Leinsdorf
  • Orchestral suite of the opera by Václav Talich, performed by Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Charles Mackerras
  • Entr'actes from the opera, arrangement by František Jílek, performed by Brno Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor Jakub Hrůša
  • Music from the opera for brass quintet, arrangement by František Jílek, performed by Brno Brass Quintet, ar Vlastimil Bialas
  • Cut version of the opera for an animated film, arrangement by Kent Nagano, in English, texted Geoff Dunbar, performed by soloists, Berlin German Symphony Orchestra, conductor Kent Nagano


  • In 1965, Walter Felsenstein directed a filmed version in German (Das schlaue Füchslein).
  • In 2003, an animated version was produced by the BBC.[12]


Ursula Dubosarsky's 2018 novel for children, "Brindabella", is based on Rudolf Těsnohlídek's "Vixen Sharp Ears", the source story of the Cunning Little Vixen, [13] relocated in the Australian bush, with the role of the Vixen played by a kangaroo.[14][15]



  1. ^ Michael & Joyce Kennedy, 2007.
  2. ^ Osborne, Charles (1983). The Dictionary of the Opera. Simon & Schuster. p. 87. ISBN 0-671-49218-7.
  3. ^ Cheek 2004, p. 6
  4. ^ a b Zemanová 2002[page needed]
  5. ^ "Leoš Janáček | Czech composer". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 11 July 2019.
  6. ^ Rupert Christiansen, "The Cunning Little Vixen, Glyndebourne, review", The Telegraph (London), 12 May 2012
  7. ^ Shawe-Taylor, D. Opera Diary : The Cunning Little Vixen. Sadler's Wells, 24 March and 6 April. Opera, May 1961, p338-341.
  8. ^ Max Loppert. The Cunning Little Vixen. English National Opera at the London Coliseum, 9 June. Opera, August 1988, p994-96.
  9. ^ Rian Evans. The Cunning Little Vixen. Welsh National Opera at the Wales Millenium Centre, 4 October. Opera, December 2019, p1587.
  10. ^ Cheek, Timothy (2003). The Janácek Opera Libretti: Pr'hody lisky Bystrousky, The Cunning Little Vixen, Translations and Pronunciation, Volume 1. Scarecrow Press. pp. 16, 19. ISBN 978-0-8108-4671-5.
  11. ^ a b Zemanová 2002, p. 178
  12. ^ The Cunning Little Vixen (2003) at IMDb
  13. ^ "Opera at Peabody - The Adventures of Sharp-Ears the Vixen". Retrieved 11 July 2019.
  14. ^ "Brindabella - Ursula Dubosarsky, illustrated by Andrew Joyner - 9781760112042 - Allen & Unwin - Australia". Retrieved 11 July 2019.
  15. ^ "Ursula Dubosarsky". Ursula Dubosarsky. Retrieved 11 July 2019.


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