opera in three acts

libretto by Leoš Janáček, based on a comedy of the same name by Karel Čapek


premiere 18. 12. 1926 Brno

first edition Universal Edition, Vienna 1926 (piano-vocal score), 1970 (full score), 2014 (full score, piano-vocal score, ed. Jiří Zahrádka, critical edition)

  • The subject of this opera is closer to science fiction as it tells the story of a woman who, thanks to the elixir of life, has been on the earth for more than three hundred years. In addition to the basic story, the opera, and Čapek's original play, look at philosophical questions concerning eternal life and human longevity. The plot is set in a civilian environment of the 1920s, and Janáček's opera also had the dubious distinction of being the first to have a telephone in it.

After Janáček finished his opera about the cunning vixen, Bystrouška, he soon started to consider ideas for his next opera and he decided on The Makropulos Affair, a play by Karel Čapek, which he had seen in December 1922 at the National Theatre in Prague. But first of all it was necessary to get Karel Čapek's agreement. At first he was very sceptical, mainly due to the conversational nature of the play, which was not particularly poetic. And it is a fact that an opera set in the unattractive location of a legal office, full of dialogue and complex family relationships, is not the typical subject for an opera work, particularly not at the start of the 20th century. Janáček, however, who had looked at the theme of the eternal cycle of life in The Cunning Little Vixen, was very taken by the work which asked whether immortality would bring happiness to people, or if life finds fulfilment due to the inevitability of the end.

Čapek finally agreed to the adaptation and so Janáček could work on the opera libretto himself, as he had done on several occasions before.

It took Janáček two years to write the opera, from 11 November 1923 to 3 December 1925. He often wrote to his muse, Kamila Stösslová, with progress reports: "A beautiful woman, 300 years old - and forever young - but all of her feelings burned out! Brrr! As cold as ice! That's the opera I'm writing!" "I'm working on the brrr. But I'm making her a little warmer so that people can sympathize with her. I may fall in love with her."

The world premiere on 18 December 1926 was again performed by the Brno National Theatre and it was another triumph for Janáček. "That cold one was an unexpected success! Everyone had shivers down their spines. Apparently it is my greatest work!" This was followed by an equally successful premiere at the National Theatre in Prague in March 1928 conducted by Otakar Ostrčil. However, by then the composer only had seven months left to live.

Opera synopsis

Act 1

A probate case has been dragging on between the Gregor family and the Prus family for almost one hundred years and today the final verdict is to be given. Albert Gregor, the representative from the plaintiffs, arrives at the office of his lawyer, Kolenatý, to ask about the verdict. However, he can only find the solicitor Vítek. Vítek's daughter, Kristina, a budding opera singer, arrives at the office and talks enthusiastically about the famous singer Emilia Marty, who arrives shortly afterwards accompanied by the lawyer Kolenatý. Marty asks about the progress of the Gregors' lawsuit and everyone present is astonished at her knowledge of events which occurred one hundred years ago. She even knows about the relationship between the long-dead Baron Prus and his lover, Ellian MacGregor, and describes exactly where some hitherto unknown documents are kept, including the Prus will. Kolenatý doesn't believe her, but under pressure from Albert Gregor he goes to the Prus house to look for the documents. After a while he returns with Gregor's court rival, Jaroslav Prus. They bring the news that they have found the will and other unknown documents - precisely where Marty had described. 

Act 2

At the backstage of a theatre, some of the employees are talking about the success of Emilia Marty's performance. A number of admirers are waiting for her, including Jaroslav Prus. His son, Janek, often meets his girlfriend Kristina at the theatre. She is enthralled by Marty and also wants to become a great artist. Marty arrives and gradually receives all of her admirers, including Albert Gregor and the half-witted Hauk-Šendorf, who recognizes in Marty his love of old, Eugenia Montez. The tired Marty sends them all away and only Jaroslav Prus stays. He asks Marty about the lover of his ancestor - the singer Ellian MacGregor, who was the mother of the baron's illegitimate child. However, in the registry another name is written - Elina Makropulos. Marty, though, is more interested in a sealed envelope which is amongst the other documents which Prus refuses to hand over. Albert Gregor arrives to proclaim his love for Emilia, but she rejects him. Janek has also fallen in love with her. The singer asks him to get the secret envelope from his father's house, but then Prus arrives and offers to give her the envelope if they can spend the night together.

Act 3

Marty upholds her part of the bargain and asks Prus for the envelope he promised. He gives it to her, but Prus is disappointed - he had not expected such indifferent coldness from her. A servant arrives with tragic news. Janek committed suicide when he discovered that his father had spent the night with Marty. Gregor, Kolenatý, Vítek and his daughter Kristina arrive with many questions. After Marty signs a photograph for Kristina, they notice that the signature is almost identical to the signatures from the century-old documents. They pressurise Marty until the singer tells them her secret. Her real name is Elina Makropulos and she was the daughter of the Greek man, Hieronymus Makropulos, who as the personal doctor of Emperor Rudolph II attempted to create the elixir of youth. He tried it on his daughter and she has now been alive for 337 years. Over the centuries she has changed her identity several times, at one point she lived under the name Ellian MacGregor and was Prus's lover at that time, she was also the Spanish gypsy Eugenia Montez, who Hauk-Šendorf recognized. She now went by the name of Emilia Marty and had become involved in the case because she was looking for an envelope with the recipe for the elixir of life - the envelope which she received for sleeping with Jaroslav Prus. The elixir only works for 300 years and so if Marty is to go on living she has to make a new potion. However, she has discovered that she no longer enjoys life: it tires and bores her because over the endlessly long time, existence has lost all of its meaning. She gives the recipe to Kristina and with it the gift of eternal youth, beauty and fame, but the young woman burns the paper, thus choosing a short but meaningful life.