For such a wonderful and oft-produced opera, Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, has very humble origins – but in a way it suits such an unprepossessing opera. Janáček was originally inspired by reading a cartoon strip in a Czech newspaper which featured the adventures the eponymous vixen.
The story itself center’s around Bystrouška, the vixen known as Sharp-Ears (Shark-Ears being a epithet for a cunning individual, this is one particularly foxy fox). The opera follows her entire life, from abandonment at youth all the way to her death. It is a lovely chronicle of the circle of life. She starts all alone wandering by train tracks and is picked up by a napping game warden who, woken by a passing frog, brings her home. Her is where her childhood occurs, she grows up causing problems for the warden via his wife’s inexplicable dislike for her and her adversarial relationship with the family dog. Eventually she kills the family’s cock and hens, via some entertaining trickery, and that is the last of her for the family. She escapes, but comes back often enough to steal food from her old home!
It is one one of these sorties into her old home that she encounters the second major character of her life: Gold Stripe (also translated as Gold Spur). He quickly makes up his mind to woo her before any one else does and he soon wins her over. They go on to raise several litters, so many in fact that when Gold Stripe asks her how many children they have had, she replies that she doesn’t know. This is not to say that she is a bad mother, as the penultimate and most memorable scene of the opera (that of her death) begins with her explaining to her kits how to avoid the foolish traps of man. A man had been hunting her so as to make a hat of her for a wedding, in this particular scene she taunts the man when he returns and she starts to ask him unanswered questions. Why does he want to kill her? Is it just because she is a fox? Why would one do that? Hey shoots her after he injures his leg, with her family hiding nearby.
In the cathartic final scene, the warden, having seen that his fox was killed goes back to the old rail road tracks where he was found. Her he sits again and sees the grandson of the frog that woke him, the frog tells him that his grandfather had told him about him and the vixen. He then sees one of Sharp-Ears kits who he says is the ‘spitting image of your mother.’ At this point he, and the audience, see that life is but a cycle and death is a part of it. All the characters at the final scene are the same as those in the beginning insofar as kind, they are just the next generation.
Sharp-Ears throughout the opera personifies a lot of characteristics which most people would do well to imitate. For one thing, she never loses track of he she is , from childhood to death she remains a snarky and cunning individual who take a great deal of pride in herself and her lifestyle. When it comes to love, she throws herself into it very wholeheartedly after some initial trepidation. When it comes to raising a family she is devoted to the success of her family and remains enamored of Gold Stripe.
She, the warden, and, to an extent, Gold Stripe, are all well developed and sympathetic. This is a story that tells, among other things, of the ephemeral nature of life, it’s endless and repeating cycle, and the joys of a life well lived.