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Emil Viklicky: Patriarch of Czech Jazz Piano

By Published: October 31, 2006
EV: Exactly. At the premier, one of the generals came up to me and said, "Emil, there is a problem. The singer you have playing the female lead is quite beautiful." I said, "Yes, she is." And he said, "But I can tell you that in real life she was very ugly." Anyway, when I first looked at the opera I realized how similar it was to the ancient Greek tragedy about Pheadra, an older woman who tried to woo her young stepson Hippolyte. He wasn't interested in her, so she accused him of raping her.

AAJ: A little bit like the story of Joseph and the Pharoah's wife in the Bible.

EV: Yes, same thing. I went see the librettist, a very educated lady. I figured I had nothing to lose by entering; if I didn't win, I could always use the score for some film or television project. Anyway, out of sixty entrants, I was chosen as one of ten finalists. I said, "Uh-oh—I'm in trouble now." What started as a joke, all of a sudden it was serious. But I went to work on it and submitted a 350-page score, again I said to myself, "Who cares? If I don't win I can use it on somewhere else." Well, what do you know—I won! They gave me the prize money and all that, but then what happened was then they said, "OK—now you owe us a chamber opera"; it was kind of like an option they felt they had.

So I said, "All right, I'll do one on Karel Macha, a Czech romantic poet. Then I said to myself, "Jesus Christ—how am I going to write an opera about the erotic diaries of a man who lived in 1810 and died when he was 26?!" It's very interesting: they're only eight pages, and they were locked away for 170 years. They didn't want to show that this Czech national hero, considered the creator of the Czech language, had this erotic element.

AAJ: I see you worked with Milan Kundera.

EV: Oh, we only used his poem, but he gave us permission. That belongs to my next project. We were lucky to get his cooperation because he can be complicated. But Zuzana Lapcikova, that folksinger I mentioned before, she somehow got permission from him, and he said, "Yes, you can use my poem." It's a story about a boy who kills his girlfriend because he loves her so much.

AAJ: Your most recent thing is The Mystery of Man, in New York as part of Wynton Marsalis' Broadway production Let Freedom Swing. You used the prison writings of Vaclav Havel for that. So did Marsalis just look you up?

EV: Actually, it stemmed from a recording I played on by George Mraz, Morava (Fantasy/Milestone, 2001), so far the only recording I've been on produced in America. The producer was Todd Barkan. He was working at the Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis—whom I had met when he was in Prague working on a project called Blood on the Field (Columbia, 1995). We talked about my opera work then. So, when Wynton started putting that project together for the Lincoln Center, he mentioned my name to Todd and had him call me.

AAJ: I understand you had a chance to play with another famous American musician in Prague, but it didn't quite work out. I'm referring to former President Bill Clinton, and I'm using the term "musician" rather loosely here, of course.

EV: Yes, Clinton visited Prague in January of 1994, and among the ceremonies held for him was one where he was presented with a Czech-made saxophone. Some government officials came up with the idea of having him play it with a local band, and they asked me to back him up with my band. Unfortunately, I was scheduled to go visit my son and grandchildren, who were living in Hawaii at the time. I'd had to purchase my ticket far in advance, and if I'd cancelled and bought a new ticket, it would have been very expensive! So I told them, "I'm sorry, but I already have travel plans which can't be changed."

AAJ: Did Bubba still play with the rest of the band?

EV: Yes, they had another pianist cover for me, and Clinton played with them at the Reduta, one of Pragues's most renowned jazz clubs. So, I guess I missed my chance to be really famous. [laughing].

Selected Discography

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Download jazz mp3 “Longing” by Emil Viklicky
  • Longing
  • Emil Viklicky
  • Live In Vienna
Download jazz mp3 “Mystery of a Man Blues” by Emil Viklicky and Marcus Printup