Rusalka makes waves with Metropolitan Opera production

Kristīne Opolais, photo: Official website of the Metropolitan Opera

Antonín Dvořák’s most famous opera Rusalka is back on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The highly anticipated production of the “lyric fairy tale” about a water nymph, who wishes to become a human in order to be loved by a young prince, is only the second in the history of the Metropolitan Opera.

The new staging of Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka has been described by the New York media as an opera-lovers must-see event. The young Latvian singer Kristine Opolais stars in the role of Rusalka, a water nymph, who gives up all that is dear to her for the love of a handsome prince. She is only the third Rusalka to have appeared on stage of the Metropolitan Opera - two lead singers Gabriela Beňačková and Renée Fleming, starred in the previous production.

Kristīne Opolais,  photo: Official website of the Metropolitan Opera
Speaking to Czech Radio, Opolais recalled that the role of the mythical Rusalka helped launch her international career.

“I am in love with Dvořák. The role of Rusalka and this opera makes me feel completely pure and clean from all bad things. We all have dark sides but this music and this opera makes me a better person.”

Sir Mark Elder, who conducted the new production of Rusalka, is a life-long admirer of Antonín Dvořák’s music. He says he became acquainted with all of Dvořák`s famous melodies long before he became a professional conductor:

“I have done the piece a lot in London many years ago when I was much younger in a very interesting production, very unusual. And since those times at the beginning of the 1980s, the piece has become so accepted and loved and appreciated.

Mary Zimmerman,  photo: Huntington Theatre Company,  CC BY 2.0
“The idea of being able to have a famous old fairy story that exists in so many different version and set to music by this post Wagnerian master is very special, because the music has such colour, such rhythmic vitality but also such darkness and depth. And an orchestra will always love it, he writes good parts for everybody because he was a viola player and he sat in the orchestra, so he knew how important it was and he has the great gift of melody; his melodies are like no-one else’s.”

The new staging of Rusalka is directed by Mary Zimmerman, who made her name by dramatizing theatre fables and fairy tales, namely Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Along with her team of costume and set designers she created a truly spectacular and magical scene, which is dominated by a large moon floating in the air.

Antonín Dvořák,  photo: CzechTourism
For Zimmerman, Rusalka is first of all a perpetual story of people who believe they want something very badly only to realize when they get it that it is not what they imagined. She says that despite being a fairy tale character, Rusalka has a lot of human nature in her:

“Any love that you change yourself radically for in order for it to supposedly work it is not going to work. She gives up her voice, but she can’t be herself without her language.

“I think of Dvořák when he came to the United States and when he lived in Iowa. I think about how he must have felt away from his home and his native language. We feel diminished when we don’t have our mother tongue and I feel like that’s a point of identification for him with Rusalka.”

Ms Zimmerman says she approached the story quite traditionally. At the same time wanted to bring something fresh into the new production:

“I wanted to emphasize the great change in her life, the great, radical, physical change of her. That was one of our main goals, to give a sense of time passing, of action happening, because sometimes it could feel a little bit static; always in the twilight, always in the dark.”

For Peter Gelb, the director of the Metropolitan Opera, Rusalka belongs among the most beautiful opera pieces ever written, although he says it had been unfairly neglected by major opera houses for quite a long time.

Metropolitan Opera,  photo: Petr Veber,  Czech Radio | Photo: Petr Veber,  Czech Radio
“I find it surprising that the opera only received its MET premiere in 1993. Of course, the Song to the Moon has long been a signature audition piece for rising sopranos. But the opera is much more than that song. It is a very well-crafted work. I would say it is Dvořák’s greatest work, the last major work that is considered his masterpiece. So it belongs to the repertoire and we are always trying to stage works that can capture imagination of the public.”

Antonín Dvořák, who spent part of his life in the United States and composed his two most successful orchestral works there, remains very popular with American audiences and his Symphony from the New World is staged frequently around the country.

According to musicologist Michael Beckermann, Dvořák has made a huge impact on the American classical music.

“Dvořák was a remarkable man. He was modest, he was his own person, he didn’t change himself to please who he was with and he was willing to take dangerous stands in support of what he believed in and I think that’s really quite remarkable. Compared to his contemporaries, especially in the US, he was remarkably progressive.

“He was allied with progressive forces. Jeanette Thurber was one of the great progressives in American history. She started a conservatory with the idea of admitting women and blacks and she invited Dvořák and allowed him to put his stamp on American music by combining native American legends and African-American melody, this was a remarkable and I think extraordinary event in the history of the country and actually in the history of European music, too.”

To mark the new production of Antonin Dvořák’s Rusalka at the Metropolitan Opera, the Czech Centre in New York has launched a series of events including a unique exhibition featuring the original score of Antonín Dvořák’s opera, which is currently on display at the National Bohemian Hall.