Katya Kabanova is a lush, compelling three-act opera with an alluring backstory. The story is only creepy and misogynistic if you take it out of its early-20th-century context.

Composer Leos Janacek was a late bloomer who arrived at fame in his 60s, around the same time he fell in love with Kamila Stosslova, an unattainable woman, 38 years younger than Janacek. He wrote her 700 love letters over a span of 11 years and composed a handful of great operas inspired by his passion for her.

Janacek's devotion had a patient, soulful quality, especially since his great love remained unconsummated. Allegedly, they shared only one kiss.

The composer was born in 1854, the tenth of 16 kids, to impoverished Czech parents. At 10 he was sent to a monastery school. Years later while studying music, he became enamored with a 14-year-old girl, Zdenka. He penned her innocent love letters, which may have over-anticipated her level of maturity: "Only in you can I draw the strength to master emotional turmoil," he wrote.

Janacek was 27 and Zdenka only 16 when they married. They had what he later referred to as a "strange, cold honeymoon." Over the years, the couple ebbed and flowed in their degrees of distance from each other. They had two children, a son, who died of scarlet fever at age 2, and a daughter, Olga, who died at 21 of complications from typhoid fever. Janacek was destroyed by the loss of his children, especially Olga. He dedicated his opera Jenufa to her and composed an elegy in her honor.

At 63, on the verge of national recognition, still grieving and longing for a love that wouldn't degrade over time, Janacek set eyes on 25-year-old Kamila Stosslova at a Czech spa resort. She was a middle-class housewife with two kids. Janacek was still married to Zdenka, who no longer inspired the composer but who remained loyal despite his affairs.

Janacek fell for Kamila's dark, shadowy eyes, her dark hair, her sensuality, and her vibrancy. He fell in love initially with what he projected onto Kamila, perhaps as a way to help push past his despair. He couldn't have her, but through his work, he could transform her into whatever form he wanted—a Gypsy, a lovesick heroine, a woman who throws herself into a river. Through Kamila, and with her, Janacek climbed into a more luminous imaginary world in which his creativity could thrive.

Initially, Kamila was indifferent to Janacek's attention. He wrote her letters about his perceptions, his fears, and the contents of his soul. He imagined the shape of her breasts. He wanted her to be his wife, to bear his child. Kamila gradually responded to Janacek, though she didn't share his lust or fantasy.

Gradually, she came to appreciate Janacek, carefully tending the boundaries between them, close and far away. Kamila tired of his adoration initially but grew into her role as his muse. She allowed Janacek to long for her, which fueled a desire that he transformed into powerful operas and compositions. Through her, Janacek was able to harness the vitality of a second youth.

Kamila was the inspiration for his final and greatest operas, including Katya Kabanova, written while the composer was in a state of renewed innocence. "Oh Kamila, " he wrote in a 1927 letter, "it is hard to calm myself, but the fire that you've set alight in me is necessary. Let it burn, let it flame, the desire of having you..." The passion that Janacek poured into his letters translated elegantly into music. He was able to blend together classical motifs, neoclassical elements, and Moravian folk music to create a lyrical, original sound.

Kamila had no interest in music. Her letters in reply to Janacek were grammatically awkward. They rambled. Janacek remained charmed.

What inspires passionate creativity doesn't follow ordinary rules of reason. Relationships between artists and younger muses have occurred throughout history: Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin. Edie Sedgwick and Andy Warhol. Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. George Dyer and Francis Bacon.

At the end of his life, Kamila sat vigil at Janacek's deathbed. He fell ill after helping to search for Kamila's son, who had gone astray in a forest.

Kamila died of cancer at 43, seven years after Janacek's death, which ironically may have been a stroke of grace: Other members of her Jewish family later died in concentration camps.

Life unfolds by surprise, act after act. recommended