Just as a diva regards her Metropolitan Opera debut as proof that she has arrived, a Met premiere confers on a work a lasting seal of approval. On Thursday, that honor will fall to Leos Janacek's "From the House of the Dead," based on Dostoyevsky's chronicle of a Siberian gulag. Adding cachet are a star director, Patrice Chéreau, and a star conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, both making Met debuts. The international ensemble is led by the Slovak Stefan Margita as a sadistic confidence man, the Jamaican-born Willard White as a political detainee, the American Kurt Streit as one impenitent killer and the Swede Peter Mattei as another.
Concert performances of the piece at the New York Philharmonic in 1983 and the American stage premiere at the New York City Opera in 1990 were sung in an English translation by Yveta Synek Graff, a native of Prague. The Met will perform it in the original Czech with titles, as cosmopolitan audiences now expect. To Ms. Graff, who declines to give her age, the contemporary fashion for multinational, original-language productions of Czech masterpieces by Janacek, Dvorak and Smetana is the vindication of a long-cherished dream that she, perhaps more than anyone else, has fought to make a reality.
Ms. Graff's singing translation of "From the House of the Dead" received high marks from the Czech native Rafael Kubelik, who conducted the performances at the New York Philharmonic, sweating every expressive detail of sound and meaning. Her translations of other Janacek operas including "The Cunning Little Vixen" and "The Makropulos Case" have been used from Seattle to Sydney, by way of New York and London. (All her translations are collaborations with the editor Robert T. Jones.)
To Ms. Graff's mind opera in translation smacks of provincialism, but then so does knee-jerk casting of singers from the homeland. Though her objective of original-language productions by top international casts was clear from the start, she has often had to pursue her Velvet Revolution by indirection: better Czech opera in English or with imported casts than no Czech opera at all. As a translator, transliterator and full-service subject expert, she has been in steady demand since the early 1980s. Over one 12-month period, eight productions kept Ms. Graff on the road for 48 weeks. "That," Ms. Graff said in an interview this summer, "was too much."
"When I first spoke up for Czech opera in Czech with non-Czech singers, everyone laughed at me," she continued, showing a visitor around the study of an upper-story Park Avenue apartment, her home since 1964. Anticipating a move to California, she was organizing her scores, recordings, archival photographs, signed posters and other memorabilia for transfer to the Juilliard School, where they will be a priceless resource for future generations. Her transliterations in Czech scores, with parallel translations into English, have already served waves of non-Czech singers and will continue do so. (Digitization awaits.)
"Everyone insisted that no foreigner can learn Czech," Ms. Graff said. "But audiences want the excitement of something new. Artists too. You can't do 'La Bohème' all the time." Her favorite Cinderella story is that of Renée Fleming, who broke out internationally as the lovely but lethal water sprite in Dvorak's gothic fairy tale "Rusalka."
How hard is it for nonnatives to learn Czech roles? Phonetically, the pristine, Italianate vowels are a singer's delight. What hurts are the jaw-crushing consonant clusters in between.
The American tenor Brandon Jovanovich is rehearsing Janacek's "Katya Kabanova" with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, his third Czech assignment in two seasons. "I have to get the language in my body before I can put the meaning on top," he said recently. "But now that I've broken the ice, I want to do more. With every role the language gets easier. And the music is gorgeous."
The diction coach for the Chicago production is Ms. Graff, who sets the bar high. At the same time she is pragmatic. "If you want perfect Czech," she said, "go to Prague. But you won't get great voices." You won't get Jessye Norman, Karita Mattila, Catherine Malfitano, Patricia Racette, Ben Heppner or Aleksandrs Antonenko, all artists she has worked with in the West.
Ms. Graff's association with the Met began in 1985 with Janacek's "Jenufa," presented in her translation, and continued uninterrupted through every Met production of Czech opera, whether in English or Czech, concluding with the revival of "Rusalka" in March. "From the House of the Dead" is being mounted without her. In the rehearsal studio the Czech language coach Carol Isaac is riding herd on the cast to dispatch consonants ahead of the beat and land vowels exactly on the beat.
Despite her Czech heritage, Ms. Graff developed her expertise in Czech opera only as an émigré. The daughter of the Czech man of letters and political activist Emil Synek, she was spirited to Paris with her mother, Eugenia Budlovska (before her marriage a celebrated actress) in 1947, supposedly to join him on a diplomatic mission. Mother and daughter arrived with two suitcases each, as if for a short trip, but Synek had foreseen the imminent Communist takeover, and the family never returned. The young Yveta grew up in Paris amid artists' balls and in the public eye as the ubiquitous Kodak Girl, a Continental Eloise, with hints of a "Roman Holiday" in her future. In the late 1950s, at the invitation of the State Department and still in her teens, she crossed the Atlantic on the Île de France for a look around America and never left.
In New York, as previously in Paris, Ms. Graff studied voice with eminent teachers who were more ambitious for her than she was for herself. After her early first marriage and motherhood dashed their hopes of grooming Ms. Graff to be a second Callas, she happily settled into the New York social whirl, cultivating a glittering salon.
She found her calling when an uncle in Czechoslovakia sent her the score of Smetana's heroic opera "Dalibor," which Eve Queler put on in Czech at Carnegie Hall in 1977 with the Opera Orchestra of New York. Though the principals were Czech, the chorus was American, coached by Ms. Graff, whose second husband, the banker F. Malcolm Graff, was on Ms. Queler's board. In 1980, with Ms. Graff's help, the San Francisco Opera made up for the embarrassment of a recent "Jenufa" in German by reviving the opera in Czech, the first international house outside Czechoslovakia to do so.
From the first Ms. Graff has understood that great performers need to shine and that authenticity is not all. So if Ms. Fleming likes to dress up Rusalka's universally beloved "Song to the Moon" with a long-held, shimmering high B flat, she has Ms. Graff's whole-hearted support. When Ms. Fleming was preparing to record the opera for Decca with the Janacek specialist Charles Mackerras, this might have been a flash point.
"Yveta waged that battle before I arrived," Ms. Fleming said recently. "It saved me a lot of wear and tear."
Mr. Mackerras has been a champion of Czech opera since his student days in Prague in the late 1940s. "When the song is sung as an excerpt, it's traditional and wonderful for the soprano to hold the B flat for a very long time, like Puccini," Mr. Mackerras said from his home on Elba. "In context, Dvorak meant it to be sung shorter, in tempo. I suppose he just didn't know how popular the aria would become." So the ending was recorded as written, for Mr. Mackerras's private enjoyment, and à la Puccini, for everyone else.
Mr. Mackerras also conducted the Paris premiere of "From the House of the Dead" in 1988, sung in Czech, with Ms. Graff's French titles. The production was by Volker Schlöndorff, director of the Oscar-winning film "The Tin Drum." The aerialist Philippe Petit appeared as the Eagle, symbol of hope.
Unlike most major Czech operas, this one dispenses with complex heroines, banishing the female voice almost completely, while three male principals, in a sort of trance, narrate their brutal crimes. There is no action in any conventional sense.
After a rehearsal Mr. Chéreau put his finger on the work's inherent contradictions. "Maybe it's not that nothing happens but that so much happens," he said. "In spite of the forbidding title the book is full of primal energies, and that's what Janacek gives us in the music. It's violent. It's alive. It's not about desperation. It's not about death at all."
The opera world remembers Mr. Chéreau as the enfant terrible who shot to fame in 1976 with his centennial staging of Wagner's epic "Ring" cycle at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. Much as the Met might hope for another such bombshell, this time the cat is out of the bag. Mr. Chéreau's well-traveled "House of the Dead" was filmed in 2007 in Aix-en-Provence, France, for Deutsche Grammophon, conducted by Pierre Boulez, his partner in the "Ring."
Ms. Graff has seen the DVD but is suspending judgment on Mr. Chéreau's production until she can see the production onstage. As it happens, however, the Met's opening night conflicts with her rehearsal schedule for "Katya Kabanova" in Chicago. With her revolution an accomplished fact, there is always more to do.