Fox on the Run: U-M Department of Voice's "The Cunning Little Vixen" was a feast for the eyes and ears


U-M's production of The Cunning Little Vixen.

Colleen Cole Beucher plays the Rooster-attacking Vixen as Cinderella Ksebati as the hen Chocholka worries in U-M's production of the opera The Cunning Little Vixen. Photo courtesy of U-M Department of Voice.

For the weekend of November 3-6, the Power Center at U-M was transformed into a magical, wooded wonderland for the Czech opera The Cunning Little Vixen. The U-M Department of Voice and the University Symphony Orchestra came together to present this whimsical tale composed by Leoš Janáček, with the reduced version arranged by Jonathan Dove. 

The original libretto was adapted from the 1920 serialized novella Liška Bystrouška by Rudolf Tésnohlídek and follows the story of a Vixen (female fox) and a Forester. While out in the woods, the Forester falls asleep and when a playful Frog wakes him up, he sees the Little Vixen, traps her, and takes her back to his farm. We move ahead in time and the Little Vixen has grown up, now referred to as simply the Vixen, and is treated as a pet at the Forester’s farm. There is conflict on the farm and she is tied up after defending herself against the Forester’s son and his friend.

The next day, after poking fun at the Hens for being controlled by the Rooster, the Vixen lays a trap by pretending to commit suicide so we will come near her. Once he does, she kills him along with the rest of the Hens. After she is done, the Vixen escapes into the woods and taunts a Badger until she takes his home away from him.

U-M's production of The Cunning Little Vixen.

The cast gathered on opening night of U-M's production of the opera The Cunning Little Vixen. Photo courtesy of U-M Department of Voice.

The story shifts to the Forester, who is drinking at a local pub with the Schoolmaster and the Parson. The men taunt the Forester for letting the Vixen get away and he leaves. It becomes obvious at this point in the show that the Forester will not rest until he traps the Vixen again, and his hunt for her begins.

Meanwhile, the Vixen meets a handsome Fox, and after being wooed by him, they mate and get pregnant. They do a shotgun wedding and the whole forest rejoices for their union. 

As more time passes we are introduced to Harašta, a poacher, who finds a dead rabbit and pockets it for the fur. When the Forester runs into him, and inspects the rabbit, he believes it was a victim of the Vixen. He takes the rabbit away and uses it to set a trap, hoping to lure the Vixen. Instead, the Vixen, Fox, and all their children, mock the poorly laid trap. Harašta comes back for the rabbit, the fox cubs rifle through his bag, and when the Vixen gloats, he shoots and kills her. 

The end of the show reveals the Forester, six months later, heading back into the woods, where he falls asleep again. He is awoken by a Frog, the grandson of the original Frog from the top of the show, and he sees a Little Vixen. This time, instead of chasing after her, he lets her be, and we have come full circle in the story.

The leads were double cast, and on the evening I attended, Colleen Cole Beucher was a saucy and playful Vixen while Robert Wesley Mason was an endearing Forester. Both are in the grad school program and are clear veterans of the stage. Antona Yost, another grad student, was also stellar as the charming Fox. 

The operatic singing was beautiful (with wonderful music direction and conducting by Kirk Severtson) and had great enunciation, but the show was incredibly strong due to the technical design and the ensemble’s commitment to their physical acting.

U-M's production of The Cunning Little Vixen.

Cameron Anderson’s breathtaking set was a highlight of U-M's production of the opera The Cunning Little Vixen. Photo courtesy of U-M Department of Voice.

Upon walking into the theater, I was immediately blown away by Cameron Anderson’s set. The layers of tree rings, that went all the way from the floor to the ceiling, created a wonderfully interactive stage that placed us in the forest without ever showing a physical tree. Rob Murphy’s colorful lights conveyed the many shifts in seasons and times of day.

Sarah M. Oliver’s costumes were creative, fun, and allowed the actors total flexibility with their dancing and movements. The small details and nuances to clearly depict each animal and critter in the script were thoughtful and not cheesy or too literal. The costumes complemented Amy Chavasse's choreography and allowed the actors to fully immerse themselves into their various roles.

The Cunning Little Vixen was thoroughly enjoyable, and it’s a shame the opera only ran for one weekend because more people needed to see this show.

Marley Boone is a theatre professional that has been in the industry since 2015. While living in Philadelphia, she would write theatre reviews for DC Metro Arts.