KARLOVY  VARY


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Sadová 42   
    The flat we had lived in Karlovy Vary was at Sadová 42. It's on the second floor, with a central balcony. That may have been repaired now, but in our times it was not adviceable puttin a foot on it, lest it might fall down. The state of repair ib the government owned houses was appalling.

    We had sold the house in Rokytnice; the local medical practitioner had bought it from us.  I had wanted to move to Prague to pursue my singing career, but the lack of accommodation there was simply unbelievable! I have mentioned the lady named Táňa, who had been badly burnt in London and whose son Lumír Mother nursed, after having lost her baby daughter Živana. The Pospíchal family had now offered us to share a flat in Karlovy Vary, which was a little too big for them. I have always liked Vary, which had a vibrant cultural life and a special character, particularly in its architecture. It is a spa with a history going back to the 14th century when, according to a legend, King Charles IV had stumbled upon its hot springs while on a hunt as he was pursuing a deer. The city became the favourite of the Russian Tsar Peter the Great, and of many other luminaries, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The poet in his own words could only live in three places: Weimar, Rome and Carlsbad, as it was known to him and as it is even now known to most of the world. He loved the town and the surrounding countryside, visited here many times, there being at least five houses bearing plaques reminding of his stay there. However, at the age of 74, on his last visit there Goethe fell deeply in love with a 19-year old Ulrika von Levetzow; when she politely refused his offer of marriage, he returned to Weimar and never came back. It didn’t take a lot to talk me into moving to Vary, as most Czechs call it, and we did so even while I was still in the Army.

The Theatre


    What to do? That was the question. Except for the Pospíchal’s, their two sons, the said Lumír, already an architect, the younger Igor, my own age, who was still studying, and the late addition to the family daughter Eva, still of pre-school age, I knew no one in town. For a while I had been singing with the local jazz band Studio 5, led by the brilliant pianist Jan Spira, and who even contacted me recently having read the Czech version of my autobiography. But that wouldn’t come close to earning me a living wage. Thus, when I was offered the job of stage hand in the local theatre, I had not hesitated a second. I would have a regular salary and I would be in a theatre. And some theatre it was!

 
he theatre in Carlsbad is a miniature of the Vienna Opera House
The theatre in Carlsbad is a miniature of the Vienna Opera House

    The building itself could rival any similar house in Europe, such is the beauty of the 19th century design by Fellner and Helmer, who had built the Vienna Opera House and many other theatres in Europe. What makes it unique are the decorations, which were provided for by then unknown painter Gustav Klimt, together with his brother Franz and another associate Gustav Matsch.

    The three owners of the designing firm had included their portraits on the lower right part of the heavy and richly decorated curtain (Gustav is the one with the flute, Franz plays the lute and Matsch the violin). It was my job from time to time to manually pull up and down their work of art ─ it took two of us to move it, even though it was well balanced with weights. I remember that once we had eighteen curtain calls after the first night of Anna Karenina ─ it was really heavy work, which had left us, the stage hands, exhausted. No picture could possibly do the curtain justice, but I will still include it here in its entirety:

The curtain, designed by Gustav Klimt 

    Only when Gustav Klimt’s paintings, such as the Golden Adele that recently sold for well over one hundred million dollars, became notoriously well known, would have people around the theatre realised what treasure they had there. In my time there, Klimt was only reasonably well known artist, but his true fame was yet to come. Thus we had basically no idea what it was that made us sweat while struggling so hard with the ropes moving that heavy rag up and down! Nowadays, one can’t help wondering what would have happened had not Gustav’s brother Franz died so suddenly and so young, only about thirty. Most likely, the partnership would have gone on, it probably would have earned them enough money to sustain themselves, but it would have not brought any of them fame. That came only after Gustav was forced to go solo, as Matsch didn’t want to keep the partnership and insisted on painting on his own. He too was quite successful, but nowhere near as much as his former partner.

    First Day in the Theatre

    I could start immediately, so the next day at 8 am I was there, ready to work. It was Wednesday, and if I didn’t wish my new job to be boring, I couldn’t have picked up a better day! As was the case with most theatres in the country, this too was a repertory theatre, meaning that almost every night there would be a different play from the repertoire. Therefore, first of all we had to dismantle the previous night’s set, which was for Maryša, a classical 19th Century drama taking place in a Moravian village. The props had to be carried to the storeroom round the corner, from where we had to bring a brand new set for the play that was to be rehearsed in the costumes. After the exacting costume rehearsal was over, the set would have to come down again, to make room for the night’s performance’s, which was to be of Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap, the set for which was to be built up late in the afternoon. The focus was on the play to be rehearsed in costumes during the day, which was the Russian comedy classic, Gogol’s The Government Inspector.

    So, there were to be three changes of scenery in one day. “Well, you have become a stage hand, better get used to this,” I said to myself. But another surprise was awaiting me. I had not expected that as a newly hired stage hand I would also be acting as an extra, in the costume of a country town cop. Such was the concept of the play’s director, who had the stage technicians, as we were known even before political correctness kicked in, acting and creating mayhem, in the style of Keystone Cops, while they fixed a panel here or brought a chair there, etc. There were nine of us, if I remember correctly. An actor in the costume of a local police sergeant directed us with a whistle in his mouth, and made us all fall in line when we finished our task, before dismissing us. Karel Kubart, a guy of about 24, who was practically born in a theatre, and who was at the time the youngest stage director in country (at least he said so to me, but such a claim was quite believable), worked with us. He was to become a good friend of mine soon, but here he just quietly mouthed orders to me, do this, do that, and I tried my best to keep pace with the whole team.

    Fortunately, we also had moments of rest, sometimes longer than was to be expected, when the play’s director decided to make the actors repeat some scene, even several times. On one such occasion I was standing on the side of the stage, watching the proceedings. Waiting there for her next appearance was an absolutely beautiful young woman with a lot of make-up, playing Marja, the town Mayor’s daughter, who in the play is the object of the main hero Khlestakov’s lust. I had no idea that a practical lesson in the reality of life in the professional theatre was just about to come. The gorgeous creature standing next to me, whom I had never met before and who had never seen me either, had suddenly turned towards me, and with a coquettish winking of the overly long artificial eyelashes, she informed me sweetly and in the tone of a familiar intimacy:

    “This fucker director’s full of shit, and I need to piss badly; if he fucks on like this I’m going to piss my pants!”

    The Actors

    There were more than thirty actors permanently employed by the theatre company. For the acting profession, the socialistic system of running things was Heaven, with the performers enjoying various advantages; something that their colleagues in the West could only dream about. We mustn’t forget that for the establishment theatre was an important propaganda tool. An average actor, who would struggle to get an acting job in the West, could expect to get a permanent position with a salary at a similar level to, let’s say, a public servant, in a theatre house based in a reasonably sized provincial town. A town of about fifty thousand inhabitants would almost certainly have a permanent theatre, with some of them actually quite good. Nowadays, of course, it is much the same as everywhere else ─ a theatre has to pay its way, and that means costs have to be constantly curbed. Maybe there are some subsidies, government grants, sponsorship deals, etc., but there is always a keen competition to get one of these. Under the communist regime there were some players whom I wouldn’t employ if they paid me, but who had kept their places and their salaries on account of belonging to the Party. Also, there had to be some libation to the Gods of Marx-Leninism, usually in form of some politically correct (though as yet we didn’t know that expression) acts of brown-nosing the Soviet lords. That meant staging some stupid Soviet play nobody wanted to see, to be played in front of audiences artificially created by ordering students of the local schools to attend, etc. A few actors specialised in this, and because such plays inevitably had short runs, they were free to make side appearances, for which there were ample opportunities in the various spa related institutions, which had plentiful government funds for the arts. Some ham actors thus made a kind of living far above their true abilities. 
    Jiří Samek
    There were some excellent actors, however. The dominant one was Jiří Samek (1931-2009), an actor of great versatility, who was able to play in just about any role, tragic or comic, and who could sing as well. I would have expected him to end up in the Prague National Theatre, like some of my colleagues from the army, but apparently he chose to eventually move to Plzeň, the fourth most populous city in the country, but very important in cultural terms, where presumably he had more opportunities. Much later I had found out that when he eventually retired from acting, he became the managing director of the philharmonic orchestra in this city, a post he held until his death in 2009 at the age of 78. I remember Samek as a funny man, who when in the mood would cause his colleagues all sorts of problems, like trying to make them laugh in the most inappropriate places. He would stand near the front, with his face away from audience, and make grimaces and funny faces while leading seemingly serious dialogue. It was a child-like behaviour, of that I have no doubts whatsoever, but that’s what actors often are: like little children.

Antonín Zacpal    Antonín Zacpal (1908-1994) was a veteran actor; one of those who could play anybody and anything, and most believably. If he was to play a king, there was a king in front of you. Or a pauper. His career started in the 1930’s and stretched all the way to the 21st century ─ he was well into his nineties when he died. When Zacpal was about 60, he was giving me, nearly 40 years younger, a good game of ping-pong. He also painted, mainly surrealistic pictures.
Often we had guests coming from Prague. One frequent visitor was Oldřich Nový (1899-1983), whom I have already mentioned in connection with Ondřej Sekora, the painter and writer. Nový was a phenomenon, probably the country’s best known movie actor in the 1930’s, when he became perhaps the first true Czech sex symbol. Seeing his older movies, one could understand why.
    Oldřich Nový
    He was excellent as the eccentric Elwood P. Dowd in the Mary Chase’s Broadway play Harvey and I, where he had an invisible (to all but himself) 6' 3.5" tall rabbit named Harvey. When he walked on the stage with the words “Where have you been left, Harvey?” he was always greeted with applause. Nový had also directed a couple of other plays, one of them a musical, But I remember him best as an ardent card player, hooked on the game called mariáš, which is a Czech version of the trick playing game known in German as  Mariagenspiel. As I was quite good at this game, honed by the hours spent playing in the bus while moving from one venue to another with the Ensemble, I had the privilege of being Novy’s partner often enough, during games that usually went on well into the small hours at the theatre club, after a performance.

     
   
    The two actors, both many years older than I, but with whom I had the best understanding, were Zdeněk Kryzánek (1920-1975) and Gustav Opočenský (1920-1992). Perhaps so, because I was drawn towards those rebelling types, who usually had problems under the communist regime. I had mentioned a few of them in the chapter on Army, and these two were no exception. Kryzánek, who early in his career even played as a guest at the National Theatre, which would have usually meant an offer of future full membership, had even ended in jail for several years, and when I had met him in Karlovy Vary, it was his first full time acting job in a long time. All this only because at an inopportune time he uttered some words against the regime in a pub! Opočenský wasn’t jailed, but banned from acting for some years, for similar reasons. When these two got together, there usually was some heavy drinking, and on one or two occasions I was sent by the alarmed stage manager to try to talk Kryzánek into abstaining, so that he could deliver his role on the stage. That meant for me becoming chummy with Opočenský and acting as his drinking companion, at least for a while, until Kryzánek became available.

    Opočenský came to a performance of our cabaret group, of which I will tell you later. He was much taken by our youthful exuberance ─ ”If I were younger, I would immediately join your group!“ We were playing a parody on an operetta, where we suddenly broke into singing a blues, with improvisations lasting several minutes. To this day I have in front of my inner eye the picture of Bohunka Hošková in a costume of a Czech peasant woman, standing with her arms tucked in her sides and singing two full choruses in the style of Ella Fitzgerald. Opočenský was elated by this and similar jokes we had there, and after the performance he invited us to  the theatrical club, where to our astonishment he had ordered a whole bottle of Johnny Walker, something we could never afford in those days, as it cost about a week‘s salary... When in 1992 I had arrived to Karlovy Vary from Australia, I was told that Opočenský was in the hospital and apparently on his death bed. Before I could get to see him he was gone. No doubt to some theatrical club in the other dimension, where Kryzánek had already been awaiting him for about fifteen years. 
 
    Kim and Rudolf



  
 I don’t remember exactly who it was that had put Kim and Rudolf onto me. They needed a singer for their fledgling cabaret group, and they contacted me. They came to the theatre, and I took them to the orchestra pit, where there was a piano. Rudolf was the piano man, small in stature, a little impish character, dark haired and wiry, who gave me the immediate impression of a born musician. This had turned out to be true. We agreed on some popular song we both knew, which went well. After that we decided to try one of their songs ─ Rudolf played and hummed the melody to me, Kim handed me the text, and when we went through a few bars we immediately knew that we belonged together.

     About two and a half years before this, both were in that group of recruits who, when they were drafted into the Army, had not the luck that some of us had, like getting into the Ensemble. Regardless of this, they had formed a small performing group, played with success at a few of the army amateur competitions, and when they got out of the Army, they decided to stick together, stay in the area and continue with what they were doing. Rudolf Staník, who studied to be a teacher, with musical theory one of the subjects, but who was also a self-taught pianist, found himself a job in the Army as a cultural officer. Kim ─ real name Petr Novák, his nickname coming from the name of the famous American actress whose surname happens to be the most common of Czech names ─ was originally a trained cook. He found himself a position as a dietician in one of the sanatoriums, many of which grew alongside the thirty or so springs of water with curative powers that had made this town so famous over the centuries. He was tallish, habitually stooping in shoulders, by far not the greatest talent as an actor, but when on stage he had a personality combined with self-assuredness, which the audiences found convincing. What I found attractive was the fact that these two had formed an authoring duo, with Kim writing the witty and poetic texts, to which Rudolf, who was also capable of writing amusing scripts, provided the music. By associating myself with them, I had made sure of supply of songs that were original, not second-hand, songs that nobody had been singing before me.
   
A jam session

    Basically what we were doing was a form of political cabaret. The times were allowing a little bit of freedom, after the fifties, which were severe and unforgiving, when political engagement was expected by the authorities and everything was policed very tightly. By now in the mid-sixties the totalitarians had become a little slack, in some areas more so than in others. This had created an opening that was filled by people like ourselves, willing to take some risks when poking a bit of (usually well concealed) fun at the establishment. The audiences usually were sharp minded, they came mostly from intellectual circles, and were always on a lookout for the kind of thing we were giving them ─ a chance to let go of some of the frustrations. Our aim always was to “enter the realm of entertainment through a side door”, which was now just possible. We had to be very careful about what we said on stage ─ you would always have to expect some undercover agent to be sitting in the audience, and allow for this. Fortunately, the audience is like a living entity, it knows what it is made of, and it has ways of communicating this to those who had learnt to understand the signs it gives you. When any such element was present, a kind of atmosphere prevailed that immediately alerted us to the fact. On the other hand we had nights when people were confident that there is no danger, and we learnt to recognise this from the kind of laughter they gave us in response. Thus we had several versions of our programme handy ─ the official one that was approved by the censure, a mildly provocative one, up to a daring one, the kind we knew could land us in trouble, if not downright in jail. But we were willing to take the risk.

    We had been playing together only a few months, when we had been invited to an audition that was held in Plzeň, the regional capital. The three of us did surprisingly well in front of the commission, the members of which even beforehand seemed to have made up their minds about bumping us up pretty high in the salary ceiling that determined what we were able to ask for. A couple of women that joined us had not fared so well, however. This was to be our weak spot ─ at one stage we even tried stopping young women in street and asking them if they could sing. If they thought they did, we gave them a trial. Because Rudolf had a great deal of connections in the army circles we were able to get a lot of business from this source. Sometimes we made up to three performances a day, travelling between army units in a Škoda car owned by the leading surgeon in the hospital Dr Fiedler, whose daughter, Marika, Kim dated (and eventually married). She was a good musician; her sister Radka was to become a well-known actress.

    Soon the performance dates were beginning to mount and had begun to clash with my theatre commitments. I had to make up my mind ─ stay in the theatre, where there was some chance of getting more smallish roles, or going full time as a “freelance artist”. I had chosen the second.
    While it was good being a freelance artist, it had its setbacks. One of them became obvious when I would go home in the small hours, after spending some time in the theatre club, which I did quite often. I was stopped by the police patrol. They would ask me for the identity document, which was in a form of a small book. In it there were pages, where people had to have a stamp of their present employer. The one of the two, who could obviously read, turned to the page where such stamp should have been, but could not find anything. I found myself under the suspicion of being a “parasite on the society”, and that called for a higher authority! They would take me to the police station, where I had to try to explain to an unresponsive officer that I was a freelance artist, therefore I could not have and stamp of an employer in the identity book. He would make a phone call to somebody higher still, who maybe had actually heard of such cases as mine, and told them to let me go.

    The same thing happened to me several times, and I had learnt to always carry with me the proofs of payments that I had been receiving, to show them and to convince them that I have not been a leach on the society. But I had to always do that at the station, where they would take me without a fail, so that we could go through the same charade once again. Such was the life of an artist in socialistic paradise!

 
These pictures come from a performance in the Czech Television in Prague. It was a parody on operetta, with text and music both by Staník.It had an apposite and brief title: I Do Not Want You Perfidious Count, or Twenty Years Without a Man (Without a Swat), or Evita Does Not Turn Down Vít. Here I play the archetypal fool Vít who, despite numerous other life setbacks, is lucky in love.

    Another of our ventures was one we called The First Day of the Fools. In reality, this was what is now known as The Happening, only we had not known the term as yet, even though in America Kaprow and Kerouac had been using it for some time. While the modern trends took some time to reach the communistic Czechoslovakia, we must have already been picking up some vibrations from the air; that’s the only explanation I have.

    Our happening had begun in the place we had regularly used as a venue ─ the hall of the city library. Once the audience had gathered however, we had taken them outside, where we offered them a long rope with attached handles, the kind the day nurseries use when they take little children to an outing. The bemused audience would hold on to the rope, and followed us through the centre of town with its famous Colonnade. Kim with a megaphone was pointing out the landmarks and their as yet undiscovered and unappreciated, characteristics. To his credit, nobody had dropped off, and some people had even joined the tail of the curiously looking procession. Eventually we would lead them to a café in the building opposite the Colonnade, where Tsar Peter the Great had once been staying (a not so subtle allusion to the Russian dominance), and where they were subjected to an improvised performance made of sketches, and of what was known as “text appeal”, consisting mainly of reading of raw and half-baked texts, while inviting input from those present. The texts of sketches, stories or songs we had dropped scattered all over the dancing floor in the café, and crawling on our knees we had been “discovering“ and reading them. A lot of improvisation was called upon. The whole thing was rather surrealistic, and with the audience it was quite successful. Of course, we were lucky enough to have had the right kind of audience, consisting of mainly intellectuals and the ubiquitous snobs. As once Kim was heard observing: “Thank goodness for the snobs that come to see us, without them we would be starving!”


Karel Kryl

   
   
Karel Kryl   I know that Karel Kryl (1944-1994) had always thought of himself more as a poet, rather than protest song singer and songwriter. Nevertheless, in the minds and hearts of the members of that small nation in the centre of Europe, he will always remain to be known for just that; a kind of Czech Bob Dylan! With the one major difference: Protest song writers and singers, like Dylan, have scarcely ever had the opportunity of looking down the barrels of guns of real tanks, driven by the physically manifested enemies, by the wolf that had “taken fancy in a lamb“, as the text of the song Kryl wrote and recorded on the day of invasion in August 1968, by the armies of Warsaw Agreement of the country known then as Czechoslovakia. The song was played on air by the defiant Czech moderators, and as a result Kryl had become famous overnight!

    I had met Kryl for the first time quite some time before that, in around 1966. With our cabaret group we were just rehearsing the parody on operetta that I’d already mentioned, and we had shown some excerpts at the “National festival of the small theatre forms“, as it was called. One of the foremost exponents of poetry, who I believe is still active in his homeland, named Mirek Kovářík, was there with his production of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. Kovářík originally studied history of art, and was at the time employed as a historian and librarian at the Duchcov Castle, the place where one of his predecessors had once been the world’s most famous lover, Giacomo Casanova, who had spent 13 years there before his death in 1797. Kovářík at the time was also running a theatre of poetry in nearby Litvínov, and came to us with a proposition. We would do a text appeal, similar to the one we held in The Day of the Fools. That would be the second part of the programme ─ in the first a singer of protest songs from Teplice would appear, named Karel Kryl, whom he had recently discovered.
Done as agreed upon. We had arrived to the venue at Litvínov in the afternoon, to be able to rehearse a bit on the unknown stage. Another rehearsal was already taking place. On the stage was a young man of smallish statue in a chequered shirt, with an acoustic guitar in hands, having conversation with Kovářík and the lighting technician. Mirek waved his hand to us, while the guitarist began to sing, in a strong baritone voice:

V ponurém osvětlení gotického sálu
kupčíci vyděšení hledí do misálů
a houfec mordýřů si žádá požehnání
vždyť prvním z rytířů je Veličenstvo Kat

    I believe the following text to be the only true rendition of the song in English, done as a song and poem should be translated, in similar rhythm and rhyme. There are several other texts to be found on the Internet, but all I’ve seen were just translations in a prose. I‘d tried to do Karel‘s song some justice, and in process discovered how difficult it was doing it in the right way. The hardest part was translating the phrase “Veličenstvo kat“, which literally means His Majesty the Executioner. The problem is that a one-syllable word for executioner in English just doesn‘t exist... 
   
Karel Kryl:
His Majesty the Executioner


In gloomy light of Gothic hall
The grocers terrified
Avoiding the looming brawl
Their missals open wide
A blessings admonitioner
the horde has in their sights
He's Noble Executioner
The first amongst the Knights

Priest–Devil’s mass conducting
His vestment topped with noose
His violet robe hiding
Sulphuric acid sluice
The mortars ready to fan
Vitriolic smell that blights
His Majesty the Hangman
The first amongst the Knights

The banner of the state
Bears emblem of guillotine
Barbed wires that people hate
Stink and in the sunshine glean
Ravens nest in land of predation
Where Executioner rules the nation

King kneels in front of Satan
Sceptre in hand he eyes
Riff-raff onto the platan
Hangs the Council of Wise
The heretics crowd madmen
Their voices pitched to the heights
Laud the noble Hangman
The first amongst the Knights

On the corner of street
Murderer morals preaches
In front of gaol on beat
The guards prevent law breaches
The military clan
Declares the sacred rights
His Majesty the Hangman
Is first amongst the Knights

Above the State Palace
Flag with the guillotine flies
Child loves his ice cream chalice
When with his friends he plays
Thus Judges in unanimous breath
Had put their ice cream man to death

Terrible was this state
With all its forced upbringing
When writing they forbade
And when they banned the singing
And as declared the Klan
Children had to pray all nights
For His Majesty the Hangman
Be first amongst the Knights

With a smirk the Devil saw
That son hated his father
That this was the perfect law
When brother harmed the brother
Where Jolly Roger’s helmsmen
Rule over the days and nights
While his Majesty the Hangman
Is the first amongst the Knights!
 



   
    This was the first song I heard Karel sing. I still think that His Majesty the Exetutioner is the best one he had composed. Afterwards Kryl would appear with our group sometimes, so I have heard it several more times; the last time more than twenty years later, when he arrived to Brisbane while touring the Czech communities in Australia. Meanwhile, we had both left the occupied Czechoslovakia. Our last meeting on its soil took place only a few days before we were both due to leave. We had run into each other on the stairs in front of the Prague Radio station, where we both had some financial claims. I had told Karel that I was flying to London; he told me that on the same day he was going to some festival somewhere in West Germany. Of course, the truth was that neither of us had any intentions of coming back; it was hanging in the air, but it was not said aloud. The times were such that one could not trust anything or anybody. There might have been listening devices nearby; either of us could accidentally let something slip when under the influence … simply, one could not risk it. To all purposes, I was going on holiday to England for three weeks, while he went to the festival. When we met again, nearly twenty years later, we remembered that meeting and we had a good laugh about it.

    That was in 1987, when Kryl was on a short tour of Australia, where he performed for the Czech communities in the major cities. He lived in Munich at the time, where he was employed by the station Radio Free Europe. After his show at the Czechoslovak Club in Brisbane, we were sitting at the table with the painter Pavel Forman, the older brother of the famous film director Milos Forman. Karel was staying with the Formans while in Brisbane. When I told him what I had learnt not long before, that Rudolf Staník, with whom we had both emptied uncounted number of beer mugs, had suffered a stroke that had left him half paralysed and in a sanatorium in Prague, he said sombrely:

“Yes, Vojen, all we get from our former homeland these days, is the bad news. And I’m afraid that it‘s not going to get any better...“

    We agreed then that on his next visit in Australia, which he planned in two or three years, Kryl would stay with us, but that was not destined to happen. Within a couple of years the unbelievable became true, and the communist regime had fallen. When the citizens of Prague had gathered in their thousands on the Wenceslaus Square at the peak of the so-called Velvet Revolution, he was there, singing at the popular demand. A little later, however, shortly before his fiftieth birthday in 1994, the sad news of Karel Kryl’s sudden death of a heart attack had reached me. It was indeed a great privilege to have known this remarkable man, now generally acknowledged to be the nation’s most important bard in the 20th century!


    An intellectual debate: Staník, Kovářík, myself, Novák, and somebody I cannot identfy
An intellectual debate. From left: Staník, Kovářík, myself, Kim, somebody unidentified.

   
    After singing cabaret and popular songs for a couple of years, I was beginning to tire of it. In addition to this, the everlasting intellectual discussions about the course we should be taking had inexorably lead to differences of opinions. Kim inclined more towards the cheaper, popular forms of entertainment, while Rudolf was leaning to what is known as the theatre of the absurd. I was caught in the middle, but had more sympathy with the course Staník was favouring. The split was inevitable, and when it came it was quite amicable. After all, we had commitments to each other and had been dependant on each other for the type of performances that made us money. However, Kim had begun to realise his dream of touring the country with a caravan, for which he created his own small group. Rudolf, myself, and a couple of others, have brought to stage some experimental plays, none of which had come near in popularity to what we had done before.


Jelena Holečková-Dolanská

    I had an entirely different idea. For a while I had been noticing one fact ─ I tended to be the best singer amongst the actors, and best actor amongst the singers. I thought that I should do something about this, and the obvious way was getting some proper training to enable me to sing opera. Jaroslav Štajnc, who had definitely gone that way, and as eventually became revealed, very successfully, had already suggested this to me while we were still with the Ensemble. Another singer, who came there a little later, named Juraj Oniščenko, was also trying to convince me to concentrate on opera. Juraj was nearly ten years older than I, but we became good friends. Later I was to find out that as a baritone, he too had a successful career, if not quite as stellar as that of Štajnc’s. Still, for his entire working life he was a member of the Slovak National Theatre; here he sang in such glamour roles as Eugen Onegin, or the toreador Escamillo in Carmen. Unfortunately, he only lived till his early sixties.

    Were both Jaroslav and Juraj right, and could I find my true vacation on the operatic stage? I said to myself that I had to try it. I went to Prague to see the well-known teacher and Professor Emeritus Jelena Holečková-Dolanská (1899-1980), whom I had already mentioned in connection with the manuscript of Father’s book. She was quite enthusiastic about my voice potential, but I had to solemnly promise her that I would not abandon the opera, switch to popular music to become a household name as, disappointingly to her, several of her formal students had done. She was already in retirement from teaching at the University, keeping only a handful of selected students, and wanted to make sure that her efforts wouldn’t be wasted. She named some of those who had disappointed her so much, and I wouldn’t have minded having a singing career of the magnitude those alleged “traitors” did, but still I gave her the promise.

    I found myself a stop gap job as a technical controller in an aircraft factory, and had begun to train my “basso profondo” in an earnest way. Meanwhile, the year 1968 had rolled in, and with it the “Prague Spring”, which is the name of the famous annual musical festival, which was therefore used by the Western media to describe the political upheavals in the country. I was present at the meeting where the opposition party to the communists was formed, and had filled in the membership application form. The comrades, when they reasserted themselves in the shade of the Russian tanks, had no doubt had it well preserved, after I became traitor to the course of Marx-Leninism. I was on the main square when those horrible tank creatures were parading there. At one moment, the crowd had pushed me in such a way that I found myself directly exposed to the sub-machine gun in hands of the soldier who was sitting on the top of the tank ─ a terrified teenager who obviously had no comprehension of what was happening, and why the crowd was showing him their fists. It didn’t feel good, I didn´t feel like being a hero and catch the bullets that could start flying any moment. I slipped through the crowd into anonymity and relative safety.

    When the time to do auditions at the University came, I was quietly confident that I would make it. So much so that I did not bother to shave the beard that I had been cultivating for some time. I had started with a moustache, and it had developed into a full beard. My trusted teacher was a liberal woman, and she didn’t mind my beard, she even liked it, nevertheless she was advising me to shave it off, at least for this occasion. She knew what she was saying, but to my peril, I wouldn’t listen.

    If I remember well, I was singing the aria of Waterman in Novak’s Lantern, the bass buffo aria from Pergolesi’s one act opera La serva padrona, and a couple of songs by Janáček. Mrs Holečková-Dolanská, who had been helping me with the selection, was present in the selection committee room, but being the Professor Emeritus, she had no vote. Afterwards she told me that I was quite a success with the members, and that I would have probably made it, but for the chairman of the committee Přemysl Kočí, who was always a better party member than he was a singer (and therefore he became the managing director of the National Theatre in the years of Soviet occupation) did not like me at all. He particularly didn’t like my beard. Of that he categorically declared:

    “We don’t want any beatniks at our University!”
That was that, and nobody would dare to vote for me after the Boss had made such declaration.


What does this Englishman do here?

My teacher wasn’t too disappointed by this setback. She said with Shakespeare that all is well that ends well, and that we would continue developing my voice for a while yet. Afterwards she would use her connections, and find me a place at one of the provincial opera houses, like Liberec or Opava. She had done this successfully in the past, and had even seen some of her former students go all the way to the National Theatre. But I had different ideas.

    I went to Karlovy Vary, where my mother still lived, and to one of my favourite places, the Embassy wine bar. At this point I wasn’t aware that a major decision was looming inexorably that would change the course of my life entirely. It had begun quite inconspicuously. A few acquaintances were sitting there, so I had joined them and listened to their talk. It revolved around the one and one thing only:
    This country has gone to the dogs, and what are we doing here? We might as well go and live the life of freedom in one of the Western countries, while doing some menial work!

    I said to myself, but only quietly, indeed, these people are so right! What am I doing here? Am I not an Englishman? But then I said to myself, hold on, you are a bit drunk, it could be the alcohol talking, just as it is with these guys (I was right after all, none of them had left, at least to my knowledge), why not wait till the morning and see if your resolution is still holding? I went home, woke up late after a good sleep, and my first thought was that I had no intention of staying in this country any longer than necessary!

    Immediately I had begun to do what a citizen of the communist country had to do to be able to get away, ostentatiously go for holidays. Even though I was born in England, I was still a citizen of Czechoslovakia, so I needed first of all to receive an invitation from someone to go there; that would kick-start the process. Mother, who understandingly was not terribly happy with my decision, but who understood that I was probably doing the right thing, arranged this through distant relatives living at Warwick in the Midlands. But there were other things. I had to get the passport with the so called “exit permit”, and a visa from the British Embassy. By then the long queues that initially formed in front of embassies of several key countries had been reduced in sizes; this meant only an overnight camp in front of the British one ─ previously it was several days, even a full week… In addition I needed several other permits and clearances, from the police, the Army, the local street committee, and God knows what else, I can’t and don’t even want to remember.
There was one thing I had noticed, though. Ever since I had embarked on this journey that eventually lead to my freedom, things went smoothly, or as smoothly as they could go under the circumstances. No obvious obstacles. Part of it must have been the government policy, which from the retrospective point of view allowed for letting of blood, in order to prevent future trouble, by giving the potential troublemakers a chance to go. It worked, as history can now tell us ─ there followed a relatively trouble free twenty years for the regime, until things got complicated in the Soviet Union, followed by its demise.

    The one sacrifice I had to make was shaving off the beard that I had already got used to wearing. That was paradoxical, because it was the beard that had brought me here in the first place. As it was, on my ID card was my photograph without a beard, only with a moustache, and as one friendly police officer told me, I would risk being stopped at the border if I didn’t get it right. The wink he gave me told me that he guessed what my true intentions were and didn’t care, maybe even rooted for me. Those were strange times, and all would go back to normal a year or so later. But by then I was no longer there.

    All the preparations to my leaving the stage took several months. It worked so that I had my airline ticket reserved for the 20th of August 1969, the first anniversary of the Soviet invasion. As it happened overnight, any demonstrations that might have happened could be expected on the 21st, and by then I would be safely in England. Or so I hoped. I worried that the airport might be closed. That had indeed happen, but only six weeks later, when the authorities did just that, and wouldn’t let anyone out without reassessing their cases. Not long ago we went to the funeral of one lady, whom we knew here in Brisbane ever since we arrived here. She, her husband and their three-year-old daughter were on their way to Austria, when the trapdoor fell. By the time the orders had reached the airport, they were already on-board their plane, but the Czechs still wanted them to leave it, and they would not give the plane permission to take off. However, the sympathetic pilots declared that the moment the plane door was sealed, the three people in question were technically already on the Austrian territory. The other passengers were also on their side, and the looming international incident was eventually averted by the Czechs giving in and letting the plane go, to the spontaneous applause of all on board.

    On the 20th of August 1969 a group of young people had gathered at the Prague airport, all waiting for the BEA plane to London. Naturally, we talked to each other and, naturally, all of us were going on holidays. After the ubiquitous delay, which made us all more nervous, the plane finally took off. Again, applause was heard, everybody looked suddenly relaxed, and their tongues had loosened up. The guy next to me had his eyes set on Canada, the girl in front was going to the USA, and the one over the aisle was a future Australian. Nobody wanted to stay in England. I kept telling myself, what if we would run into a storm and were forced to return? I was quiet for a while, but when we were over Germany and getting near the English Channel, I too had opened up. My intentions of staying in England had surprised them all; maybe they even felt a bit sorry for me. But I was thoroughly convinced that I had made the right decision, and I didn’t care!





 

CONTINUE TO LONDON