A Listener’s Guide to “Rusalka”

This fall, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City will tell a story. In that story, a mermaid falls in love with a human prince. She asks a witch for help and then sacrifices everything, including her voice, for the chance to spend time with him. Despite her inability to speak, the prince falls in love with her.

Sound familiar? Are you humming Disney’s Part of Your World?

Well, stop it. The Lyric would rather you start humming Song to the Moon from celebrated Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s operatic masterpiece, Rusalka, when you read that synopsis. You say you’ve never heard of Song to the Moon or Rusalka? Never fear. You’ll have a chance to get to know this great operatic work when it opens November 7 at the Muriel Kaufmann Theatre at the Kaufmann Center for the Performing Arts.

The Background

Prague National Theatre
Prague National Theatre

Rusalka and Disney’s The Little Mermaid do, in fact, share a common source in Hans Christian Andersen’s eponymous tale, but that’s where the similarity ends. Rusalka’s libretto came from the pen of the young poet/playwright Jaroslav Kvapil (1868-1950), who borrowed content from Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, and other sources.

In 1899, Kvapil vacationed on the Danish island of Bornholm. The rustic surroundings and walking in the likely footsteps of Andersen (who was Danish), inspired him to set his version of the story to poetry. When he was finished, he approached many composers, to no avail. He didn’t visit Dvořák at first; he was intimidated. But several of the minor composers who declined the commission hinted that Dvořák was looking for a great libretto to turn into a great opera. Kvapil mustered the nerve to call on Dvořák. Rusalka was the result; it premiered at the Prague National Theatre in 1901 and has had performances there every year since.

The Story

The official title of the opera is Rusalka: A Lyrical Fairy Tale, but our 21st-century, Disney-influenced idea of a “fairy tale” differs entirely from Kvapil and Dvořák’s 19th-century concept. While there are the familiar witches, curses, magical powers and conflict between good and evil, there is no happy ending.

Rusalka is a lonely water nymph who longs for the love of the human Prince. Her father, Vodnik, the Water Goblin, is dubious but supportive and suggests seeking the advice of the witch Jezibaba. The witch gives Rusalka a potion that will transform her into human form, but without the power of speech. If Rusalka does not win the Prince’s love, both she and the Prince will be cursed for all eternity.

Rusalka agrees to the deal and drinks the potion. The Prince falls in love and takes Rusalka back to his palace, where she cuts a suspicious figure—foreign and mute. The palace guests are wary of Rusalka, and the Prince soon transfers his attention to a Foreign Princess. He rejects Rusalka, who returns to the lake. At the end of the opera, the repentant Prince comes to the lake to find Rusalka. He begs her to kiss him and give him peace. She does, and he dies in her arms. Rusalka asks for mercy on his soul and disappears into the water.

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About This Production

If you’ve seen Rusalka before, you’ll notice that the comic relief characters of the Kitchen Spit and the Gamekeeper are missing.

That isn’t a mistake; guest director Eric Simonson did it on purpose. “I was more interested in the darker and spiritual side of the story and the opera,” he says. “Even though the Kitchen Spit and Gamekeeper are comic relief, in my opinion, their jokes aren’t very funny today. This B story, which I think I’ve proven can be cut without much sacrifice, doesn’t add much, if anything, to the story of our protagonists. Musically, also, I think we’ve saved the best of what Dvorak wrote.”

The Composer

Antonin Dvorak

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) is not known for his operas. The Czech composer may be most recognizable as the composer of the New World Symphony, which was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic during his three-year stay in the United States. Dvořák also wrote symphonic poems, chamber music, concertos, oratorios, and, yes, operas. Dramatic music made up his main output after he returned home from the United States in 1895. But even before that, his bent toward telling a story with music is evident; in fact, his New World Symphony can be considered dramatic music, as it is based on Longfellow’s epic poem Song of Hiawatha. Yet history still remembers him as a symphonic composer.

The Language

Rusalka is sung in Czech. It is a beautiful language, with a lilt and melody that makes it inherently musical. But historically, Czech has not been a popular language for literature and opera. The Czech author Franz Kafka originally published his seminal work, The Metamorphosis, in German, not Czech. Czech-born Milan Kundera wrote The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Czech but couldn’t get it published in the original language; it was published in French.  So why did Dvořák insist on Czech for his seminal operatic work?

The Context

The 19th century was the age of nationalism in Europe. Italy threw out the Austrians and became one nation. Germany – which didn’t really exist before the 19th century – found itself with a frontier and an identity.  Suddenly everybody was interested in their native language and wanted great literature produced immediately. Italians and Germans practically invented modern Italian and German – and people who spoke ‘peasant’ languages, like the Czechs, were pushed to the wayside.

Dvořák bristled at the trend and became determined to try to create a canon of Czech national music. He wrote four symphonic poems based on legends as well-known to Czech audiences as Longfellow’s Hiawatha poem was to Americans. But symphonies were not as popular, well-attended or often performed as staged works so Dvořák turned to dramatic music. He wrote several operas before he found a subject that he thought was quintessentially Czech but could still attract a universal audience; that subject was Rusalka.

Opera Highlights

Rusalka is a patchwork quilt of techniques inspired by Wagnerian musical drama combined with structures from the Italian school. Dvořák’s opera is an almost uninterrupted stream of music from beginning to end, filled with lush leitmotifs (recurring musical themes associated with a particular person, idea, or situation) and rich Wagnerian harmonies. But alongside the influence of Wagner is the strong operatic tradition of the 19th century, with its set pieces and arias.

Dvořák includes these standard 19th-century constructions when the flow provides an opening. They include Rusalka’s Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém (Song to the Moon), the opera’s chart-topping hit, and Ježibaba’s humorous aria Čury mury fuk, sung as an “Abracadabra”-like incantation as the witch turns Rusalka into a human.

The Cast

Ellie Dehn

American soprano Ellie Dehn as Rusalka. Kansas City audiences will remember her as Musetta in the 2013 Lyric Opera production of La Bohème.

Maxim Aksenov

Russian tenor Maxim Aksenov as the Prince. This is his KC Lyric Opera debut. He has previously sung the Prince in Monte Carlo (2014) (with Ewa Podleś as Ježibaba) and Teatro dell’Opera di Roma (2014).

Nancy Maultsby

American mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby as Ježibaba. Kansas City audiences will remember her as Azucena in the 2012 Lyric Opera production of Il Trovatore.

Robert Pomakov

Making his Lyric Opera debut, Canadian bass Robert Pomakov will portray Vodnik. Pomakov sang the role of Owens/Ethan in this summer’s world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s operatic setting of Cold Mountain at Santa Fe Opera.

Kristen Chambers

Also making her Lyric Opera debut, soprano Kirsten Chambers will sing the role of the Foreign Princess.

The Director

Academy Award-winning and Tony and Emmy Award-nominated director Eric Simonson will direct. His opera credits include many premieres at Opera Colorado, Pittsburgh Opera, Carnegie Hall and, most notably, the world premiere of Silent Night at Minnesota Opera. He is a member of Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The Conductor

Conductor Alexander Polyanichko makes his Lyric Opera debut on the podium with the Kansas City Symphony. He graduated from St. Petersburg State Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatoire and has been with the Mariinsky Theatre since 1989. As a guest conductor he has appeared at the Australian Opera, English National Opera, the Bolshoi Theatre, Welsh National Opera, the Deutsche Oper, the Stuttgart Oper, Covent Garden, La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera and the Opéra National de Paris.

The Design

The same team who designed Simonson’s original conception at Minnesota Opera in 2008 is credited for design in the Lyric Opera production as well. The 2008 production relied heavily on projections; Wendall Harrington “practically invented the art form,” says Simonson,” and her projections are stunning.”

Harrington’s projections play the main scenic role. Erhard Rom’s set is minimalistic, a platform with a curving slit down the middle to evoke the stream, and Kärin Kopischke’s costumes are primarily designed to blend in with the vivid projections. The lighting design is by Robert Wierzel.

What the Experts Say

“Rusalka is filled with paradox, mystery, and layers of meaning that, like the greatest of masterworks, reveal and invoke new feelings, questions, and insights after repeated hearings. Kvapil’s exquisite, multi-layered libretto and Dvořák’s glorious music combine to create a work that plummets so deep that we are forever in awe of the rich world before our eyes and ears.”
—Timothy Cheek, author of Rusalka: A Performance Guide

“This is a very messy love story, and it’s deeply felt. I love that, despite Rusalka’s obvious disadvantages, in the end she still winds up in control (sort of) and winning. This story is a fairy tale but is so complicated that it doesn’t feel like one. It reflects our humanity and desire to return to nature and away from man-made contrivances — things like city, fashion, gossip, power plays and politics.”
—Eric Simonson, director

“Rusalka is the equivalent of a sensuous moonlight swim.”
—Renée Fleming, soprano

Director’s Tip

“If you haven’t already, listen to the opera a few times to warm yourself up to this beautiful masterpiece,” says director Eric Simonson. He recommends the Decca recording with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, featuring Renée Fleming.

The Lyric Opera of Kansas City presents Rusalka at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7, 11 and 13, and at 2 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway Blvd. Tickets start at $39. For tickets, 816-471-7344 or www.kcopera.org.

About The Author: Krista Lang Blackwood

Krista Lang Blackwood

Krista Lang Blackwood is an award-winning educator, performer and freelance writer. When she's not teaching or performing, she combs the greater Kansas City region for off-the-beaten-path arts and culture offerings, usually in the company of her husband and precocious, French-speaking son. 

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  • Reply Robert Van keuren

    Phone number wrong for opera

  • Reply Robert Van keuren

    Correct number 816-471-7344

    • Reply Amanda Rehagen

      Thank you for making note of that. We have corrected the phone number listed in the article.

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