The Quest for Eternal Life

22 July 2022

Welsh National Opera’s love affair with Janàček continues during our Autumn 2022 Season with one of his lesser-known works, The Makropulos Affair, exploring the theme of eternal life. As any Harry Potter fan will tell you, an obsession with immortality does not bode well for a happy ending, and in the wider arts world, the same seems to run true.

Two years after the first performance of his hugely popular The Cunning Little Vixen, Janàček’s curiosity with the circle of life was seen again, this time he took it one step further with the character of Emilia Marty. Exploring whether immortality could allow happiness, or if the finite nature of life is necessary to enjoy – or ‘live’ – while you can. As he himself described Emilia and his opera:

‘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!’

His work follows on from the Victorians who were obsessed with death, and therefore, by default, the idea of immortality. This was reflected in the arts and literature of the time. A prime example is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray – since given the Matthew Bourne treatment in his contemporary dance adaptation named simply, Dorian Gray. Working from the concept of a portrait being a way to achieve immortality, in Dorian Gray Wilde takes things to the extreme with the figure in the portrait aging as time passes, enabling the real Dorian to stay forever young. Interestingly, in the early days of photography rather the opposite was believed, that having your photo taken captured your soul.

The story of Faust in all its forms, from the original German legend, via Christopher Marlowe’s 1604 play The Tragical History of D Faustus, to Goethe’s play, and Gounod’s or Berlioz’s operas in the 1800s, is the quest for power over death. Dr Faust is a necromancer in some versions of the tale, rather than the more civilised astrologer he is in others. In both he makes a pact with the devil – selling his soul for ultimate knowledge and power.

It is a theme that reverberates through popular culture, with the world of comics equally obsessed. The most recent film incarnation, Morbius, follows Dr Morbius’ obsession with looking for a cure for terminal diseases, only to be transformed into a vampire-like creature with its associated eternal youth. Bringing a devastating effect to his love life.

In The Makropulos Affair, Emilia Marty’s (long) life is rich in relationships, but has she lost the ability to truly love following centuries of loss and heartbreak? In his investigation of immortality, does Janàček allow there to be happiness after all? Find out this Autumn.