On a Personal Note

The Boy with the Dragonfly Tattoo

Episode Summary

Principal Flute Joshua Smith explains how performing Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen left a lasting mark and why the dragonfly just may be his favorite insect.

Episode Notes

Principal Flute Joshua Smith explains how performing Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen left a lasting mark and why the dragonfly just may be his favorite insect.

Featured Music:

JANÁČEK – The Cunning Little Vixen
(sung in Czech)

The connection we share through music is more important than ever — and so is your support. To support The Cleveland Orchestra, please visit clevelandorchestra.com/donate.

Episode Transcription


Welcome to The Cleveland Orchestra’s On a Personal Note, where every story has a soundtrack.  In difficult situations or moments of sheer joy, music connects us with our humanity.

Joshua Smith:

I’m Joshua Smith. I’m the principal flute in The Cleveland Orchestra. And I’m really excited to talk about Janáček’s opera, The Cunning Little Vixen.

This is such a perfect example to talk about opera because it’s not a cliché, generic. This is definitely not the one you’re going to think of first.  It’s so particular and so special, and yet so simple.

I didn’t know really anything about it until I started learning it for that production in 2014. It was like love at first listen.

Janáček spent a lot of time investigating and collecting folk music, especially Slavic and Moravian folk tunes.

There’s this richness and this reality that comes from him expressing himself in his own language, with music that is inspired by the music that he grew up around. Then there’s this whole other layer in this opera. He spent at least a year just going out into nature and taking hikes and trying to find ways to take the sounds that he was hearing in the forest — of bird calls and squirrels chattering and even wind, water. I think the idea of those sort of natural colors that he utilized well make it immediately fun to listen to.

The message here is not heavy-handed. It’s really just, look around you and see what’s there and realize that everyone’s alive. Everything has a spirit. You witness the life cycle.

It’s a tricky opera to produce because it involves a vixen and her cohorts in the forest. A fox is her love interest, and a grasshopper appears, and a whole bunch of midges and birds and a dog and a badger. Yuval Sharon was hired to direct the artistic, the vision part of it all, and we were surrounded by a shell, onto which was projected two-dimensional, very cartoon versions of this story happening.

I think you really have this amazing sense in looking at The Cleveland Orchestra production of opening the pages of a fantastically drawn kid’s book. It was this amazingly unique blend of an orchestra on stage and a storybook wrapped around them.  The idea of that whole visual telling of the story, plus the sonic telling of the story, plus the story itself coming from the singers — it was just remarkably cool.

The dragonfly solos are such an amazing gift to a flutist because there’s not a truly specific indication of exactly what to do. When you look at it on the page, you can tell just from seeing the shape of the notes, it’s a phrase that is attached to the idea of sort of bouncing and not really landing.

So, circling back to how you interpret that in music, I think does have to do with not having a solidly specific idea of exactly what you want to have happen, and being okay with the vulnerability that comes when you make that decision not to have a decision. So that what comes across sounds like you’re kind of surprised by it when you do it.

I think because it’s so simple, it becomes a huge challenge to allow it to be as filled with awe as you would want to feel when you’re watching a dragonfly.

I have a tattoo. It means something to me, obviously, or I wouldn’t have it. It’s basically, I would say, a hieroglyph.  It’s a very prehistoric version of a dragonfly. And the second that I saw it, I thought, “That’s the tattoo.”  You definitely know that it’s a dragonfly, but it’s not in any way realistic.  It’s just a very archetypal symbol, which for me is very much embracing the concept that we shouldn’t stagnate, that we should always be open, that we should always be moving somewhere, that we should always be on an adventure, ask questions and go out and find life.

When I started thinking about the dragonfly in the context of maybe getting this tattoo, I sort of woke up to the fact that that is absolutely how Janáček uses the dragonfly in the opera.

The dragonfly appears and is not a vocal part. There are some animals in this opera who have words, who speak. The dragonfly is just an atmosphere, this sort of magical, mystical symbol of something about to happen. The dragonfly appears in the opera at both moments where the vixen is about to have this shift into another phase of her life.

My mind was able to kind of make all these fired connections because I thought a lot about how to be the dragonfly, because the music that is assigned to it is a really gorgeously evocative flute solo.

It’s funny, I don’t even see the tattoo so often. It practically feels like a birthmark. And yet when I think about what it means, I think it’s really just about the courage to experiment. It’s about finding peace in being vulnerable, maybe. I think that’s what I had to find when I was playing around with the ideas of how to bring it to life in this opera.

I was about to make this about playing the flute, but really it’s about living, about constantly refreshing the idea that we get to try everything and start over again always, and have courage to not know all of the answers all of the time. That to me is what the dragonfly is an archetype of — this kind of magic that allows the human spirit to sort of lift off the ground.


That was Joshua Smith speaking about Janáček’s opera, The Cunning Little Vixen, an incredibly rich depiction of the natural world that can teach us something of our own human nature. You can listen to the climax of Act Two, recorded live from Severance Hall in 2014, in just a moment. It features Martina Janková as the vixen, and Jennifer Johnson Cano as the fox.  The scene is the wedding between the vixen and the fox that concludes Act Two.  And if you’re enjoying dashing and darting like a dragonfly through the episodes of On a Personal Note, please tell your friends. You can find us at clevelandorchestra.com/podcast.