The Cunning Little Vixen is Janáček’s most enchanting, charming and unusual opera with its look at life through the eyes of a mischievous young fox, Vixen Sharp Ears.

Here we share our top five reasons why we think this bittersweet opera is the perfect night out this season.

1. A Comic Creation

A comic strip in the local paper gave Janáček the idea for The Cunning Little Vixen. Attracted to its lively take on the cycle of life, he immediately set about writing an opera based on its protagonist – an endearing young fox called Vixen Sharp Ears. In fact, the opera still feels a little like a graphic novel as the action plays out in a series of short scenes during which we get to compare and contrast the worlds of the human characters and the other animals.

While the storyline is easy to follow, Associate Director Elaine Tyler-Hall reminds us: It’s a simple story but not a simplistic one in Janáček’s hands.” Instead, it becomes a richly-textured and engaging tale.

Elin Pritchard as Vixen Sharp-Ears with Claire Lees, Gillene Butterfield, Cordelia Fish, Molly Barker and Miranda Bevin as Hens and Campbell Russell as Cockerel © Tristram Kenton

2. Celebrating Mindfulness

What the animals show us throughout Janáček’s opera is the extraordinary power of living in the moment. Unlike with the humans, the past doesn’t colour the animals’ present. They simply experience the world around them, reacting to everything as it happens.

For the Forester, Schoolteacher and Priest, it’s a very different state of affairs. They are trapped in a place where they’re constantly looking back at previous events and their consequences. This effectively stops them moving forward with their lives, as they remain mired in frustration and lost opportunities. It’s only after the Vixen’s death that the Forester begins to see through new eyes and appreciate the beauty of his immediate surroundings.

Claire Pascoe as Innkeeper's Wife, Paul Nilon as Schoolmaster and James Rutherford as Forester © Tristram Kenton

3. Animal Magic

In no other opera can you find a balletic dragonfly, a brood of hens, an arrogant dog, a buzzing mosquito and a homeless badger! Quite apart from Vixen Sharp Ears, the stage teams with animal life, both in the farmyard and in the wild.

Janáček is brilliant at giving the animals very particular personalities which are reflected in the way they move and interact with each other. The dragonfly, for example, is always performed by a dancer, ensuring it’s as mesmerising to watch as in the wild. The costumes, designed by Maria Björnson, also cleverly reference the animals’ colours and shapes, as well as paying homage to the 1920s when the work was written – look out for the Vixen’s flapper-inspired dress!

James Davies as Dog and Elin Pritchard as Vixen Sharp-Ears © Tristram Kenton

4. A Musical Gem

If you’ve never encountered Janáček’s music before, you’re in for a treat. One of the most recognisable features of this composer’s oeuvre is the way in which he integrates folk music into his operas. Taking his inspiration from the songs he heard in his native Moravia in the east of the Czech Republic, he often incorporated their toe-tapping rhythms and tunes into his work.

This is certainly true of The Cunning Little Vixen. It seems particularly fitting that what feels like a fairy tale is told through folk-infused melodies alongside lush orchestral passages – a surprisingly modern-sounding juxtaposition.

5. For All Ages

This is an opera for all ages. Its simple tale and the Vixen’s mischievous behaviour will appeal to younger audience members, while others will enjoy its philosophical take on the human condition. As Elaine says: “Whatever age you are, whatever knowledge you have of opera, whatever interest you have in theatre, you’ll find something to fascinate you in this extraordinary piece of work.”

We do suggest a minimum age of 10 years for the full opera, bearing in mind the Vixen’s untimely end. For younger theatre-goers, Little Listeners: Mini Vixen is an interactive, family-friendly show which is touring to smaller venues across the north of England. Pre-schoolers might prefer the Little ONes: The Cunning Little Vixen music and movement workshops in Leeds – or to make a fox at home with Opera North’s Little School of Music.

Heather Lowe as Fox and Elin Pritchard as Vixen Sharp-Ears with Phoebe Connolly, Phoebe Garner, Lottie Gray,Isaac Jackson, Eliza Knowles, Oliver Mason,Chloe Sturman, Cece Ward as Fox Cubs © Tristram Kenton © Tristram Kenton

The Cunning Little Vixen opens at Leeds Grand Theatre on Saturday 4 February with a schools’ matinee on Monday 6 February. Following the run in Leeds, it tours to Salford Quays, Nottingham, Newcastle and Hull. Sung in English, it lasts approximately 2 hours 15 minutes with one interval.

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