Jenůfa learning pack

An opera in three acts composed by Leos Janácek, libretto by the composer (after Gabriela Preissova’s play Her Step Daughter )


The main parts in Jenůfa:

Jenůfa – Step daughter of the Kostelnicka, and the prettiest girl in the village (soprano)

The Kostelnicka (The Sexton’s wife) – Jenůfa’s step mother (Soprano)

Steva Burja – Jenůfa’s layabout cousin and owner of the mill (Tenor)

Laca – Steva’s step brother and a poor mill worker (Tenor)

Grandmother Burja – Jenůfa and Steva’s grandmother (Mezzo-soprano)

Foreman of the Mill (Baritone)

Mayor (Bass)

Karolka – The daughter of the mayor (Mezzo-soprano)

Jano – A shepherd boy (Soprano)


Act One – A lonely mill. Late afternoon

Jenůfa is expecting a child by her cousin Steva, owner of the mill. In the company of Steva’s jealous half-brother, Laca, and their grandmother (old Mrs Buryja), she is anxiously awaiting Steva’s return from the army recruitment board. If Steva has not been conscripted, they will be able to marry at once, without revealing Jenůfa’s guilty secret.

The herd-boy, Jano, gleefully announces that Jenůfa has taught him to read. Old Mrs Buryja praises her grand-daughter’s intelligence and common sense; Jenůfa replies that her common sense has long since ‘flowed away like water’. Laca is trying to carve a whipstock but complains that the knife is blunt. The mill foreman offers to sharpen it for him. Goaded beyond endurance by Laca’s jealous taunts, Jenůfa goes into the house, leaving the two men to comment on what a fine sister-in-law she will make for Laca.

The foreman has heard that Steva has not been conscripted after all; Jenůfa’s joy at the news is shared neither by Laca nor by her step-mother the Sextoness (Kostelnicka). The new recruits arrive in high spirits, with Steva at their head. When Jenůfa accuses him of being drunk, he rounds on her: doesn’t she realise she is addressing Steva Buryja, a mill owner loved by all the girls? Look, he says, one of them has given him a posy of flowers. Steva orders the musicians to strike up Jenůfa’s favourite song, and leads a riotous dance in honour of their forthcoming wedding.

The Kostelnicka interrupts the revelry. If Jenůfa marries this spendthrift, she will spend the rest of her life scraping for pennies. The Buryja family are all alike, she says: her own late husband (Steva’s uncle) was the same – a blond, handsome, drunken wastrel. She issues an ultimatum: if Steva can prove his good intentions by not getting drunk for a whole year, then she will consent to the marriage.

Jenůfa is horrified at this fateful delay. Steva tries to appease her by declaring that she is the prettiest of them all: he loves her ‘rosy-apple cheeks’. Grandmother Buryja sends him away to sleep off his drunkenness. Laca taunts Jenůfa with the posy which Steva had received from one of his admirers; she declares that she will wear it with pride. Laca tries to kiss her, but she repulses him. Angrily, he slashes her cheek with a knife.

Act Two – The Kostelnicka’s living-room. Five months later, winter

Jenůfa has had her baby in secret; little Steva, now a week old, is asleep in the next room. The Kostelnicka tells Jenůfa she should pray to God that the baby will die and save the family from dishonour. She gives Jenůfa a sleeping-draught and sends her to bed.

Steva arrives, in response to a summons from the Kostelnicka. He refuses to go in and look at his child, although he promises to pay for its upkeep. He cannot marry Jenůfa now: her face is disfigured, and she has become ‘cross and miserable’ just like her stepmother. Anyway, he says, he is engaged to the Mayor’s daughter, Karolka, and that will be the end of the matter. Jenůfa cries out in her sleep; Steva departs hastily, to avoid having to face her.

Laca is next to arrive. He knows nothing of the baby, believing that Jenůfa has been away; he has just seen Steva visiting the house, and takes this as a sign that Jenůfa has come back. He begs the Kostelnicka to let him marry Jenůfa after all, but she breaks the news to him that Jenůfa has given birth to Steva’s child. In desperation, she suddenly tells Laca that the child has died and Steva is to marry someone else. She sends him off to find out more about the wedding. Left alone, she comes to a terrible decision: with the child out of the way, her stepdaughter will be saved from shame and disgrace. She takes the baby from the sleeping Jenůfa and goes out to drown him in the mill-stream.

Jenůfa wakes from her drugged sleep, wondering when Steva will come to see his son. She discovers that the baby is missing, but concludes that her step-mother has taken him to show him off to the workers at the mill. She prays to the Virgin Mary to protect her child. The Kostelnicka returns and tells Jenůfa that she has been lying in a fever for two days, during which time the child has died. She tells her that she is now ‘free’; Steva no longer wants to marry her, and she should consider the faithful Laca.

Laca himself now returns and loses no time in asking Jenůfa to marry him. She declares that she has neither ‘property, nor honour, nor love’, but accepts. An icy gust of wind blows the window open; gripped by remorse, the Kostelnicka sees ‘the face of Death’ looking in at her.

Act Three – Two months later, spring

In spite of the Kostelnicka’s increasingly nervous state, preparations are under way for Jenůfa’s marriage to Laca. The Mayor and his wife come to pay their respects; the Mayor’s wife expresses surprise that Jenůfa should ‘dress like a widow’ for her wedding. Laca tells Jenůfa that he has overcome his resentment for Steva and has invited him to the wedding with his bride-to-be, Karolka. The village girls sing a song to Jenůfa; Grandmother Buryja gives the couple her blessing.

The Kostelnicka is about to bless them in her turn when the proceedings are interrupted by a commotion outside: the body of a baby has been discovered in the frozen mill-stream. From its clothes Jenůfa identifies the dead child as her own. The villagers assume she must have killed it herself, but the Kostelnicka reveals the truth and recounts the grisly details of her crime. Appalled, Laca blames himself. Karolka calls off her marriage to Steva.

Jenůfa realises that her stepmother has acted unselfishly, believing that she was protecting Jenůfa’s honour. Jenůfa calls upon the wedding guests to understand and forgive. She tells Laca that he is free to go, but he promises to stay by her side; moved by his devotion, Jenůfa feels that God has blessed their love.

Background to the opera

Janácek worked on the opera Jenůfa over nine years whilst working as a choirmaster, organist and teacher. During this time he continually refining his compositional style and honed the libretto and dramatic action in the story to emphasise the music and the speech rhythms of the melodic lines.

The opera is thought to have been heavily influenced by a number of factors;

  • Janácek’s increasing interest in Czech folk music
  • Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades (for which Janácek had written a review)
  • The turmoil in Janácek’s own life, and especially the death of his daughter, Olga, shortly after he completed the work in February 1903

Although the opera was well received in Brno, it was not performed in Prague until 1916, mainly due to the influence of the head of the National Opera in Czechoslovakia, Karel Kovarovic. Janácek and Kovarovic had a mutual dislike of each other’s work, and Janácek had produced an unfavourable review of Kovarovic’s opera The Bridegrooms. Eventually a version of the opera was performed in Prague in 1916 with Kovarovic’s own orchestrations.

This production met with success, despite Janácek never really receiving the attention and praise within Czechoslovakia given to the other two high-profile Czech composers of the time: Dvorák and Smetana.

For further information on Janácek and Jenůfa visit the website – – where you will find comprehensive information about the composer and his work.

Janácek – biography

(Born Hukvaldy (Czech Republic), 3 July 1854; died in Brno 10 August 1928)

From the age of 11 Janácek was educated at the Augustinian Queen’s Monastery in Brno where he sang as a chorister. He went on to run the choir at the monastery before studying at the Prague, Leipzig, and Vienna conservatories.

In 1880 he returned to Brno. The following year he founded a college of organists at Brno, which he directed until 1920. He was primarily based in Brno for most of his life, establishing a strong foundation for musical education for the city.

In 1881 the National Theatre in Brno opened, and Janácek’s relationship with this new theatre was such that it went on to premiere eight of his nine operas with the exception of The Adventures of Mr Broucek (Výlety páne Brouckovy).

In 1884 Janácek founded Hudební listy, a review-based journal. Through these writings we can understand and appreciate many of Janácek’s feelings about the work of his contemporaries, especially his follow Czech composers Dvorák and Smetana, whose work at the time was considered to have a more mainstream and international appeal. It also highlights the respect he had for Tchaikovsky and the Russian musical tradition. Janácek was heavily influenced by attending a performance of Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades.

Janácek was plagued by continual domestic unhappiness due to the death of two of his children and a separation from his wife, and partly due to this his musical output slowed considerably until he composed his first opera, Šárka, in 1887. Šárka remained unperformed until his 70th birthday in 1924. However, despite the disillusionment with the failure of staging his first opera, from around 1888 Janácek threw himself into a comprehensive study of Moravian folk music. Both of his next completed operas have a strong Moravian influence.

Both Pocátek Románu (The Beginning of a Romance) and Jenůfa are taken from works by Gabriela Preissová. Where Pocátek Románu is folkdances and self-contained songs, Jenůfa was a full-length and full-blown operatic achievement, and has become one of the most enduring of Janácek’s works.

In 1918, after the end of the First World War, Czechoslovakia gained its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This had a great effect on Janácek, who was both a patriotic man and a composer stepped in the music of Czechoslovakia and especially its eastern region of Moravia.

In the last decade of his life he composed some of his finest works including; Kát’a Kabanová, Príhody Lišky Bystroušky (The Cunning Little Vixen), Vec Makropulos and his final opera Z mrtvého domu (From the House of the Dead) as well as much of his most famous orchestral works. He died of pneumonia shortly after completing Z mrtvého domu.