Working at NY’s Met “special”, says Czech conductor of Rusalka Jiří Bělohlávek

Jiří Bělohlávek

Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka, the story of a water nymph who falls in love with a human prince, has just been performed for the last time this season at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The Met’s production starred the soprano Renee Fleming and was directed by the renowned Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek, who spoke to Radio Prague on the eve of the final performance.

Star conductor Jiří Bělohlávek is one of the Czech Republic’s most coveted exports. Currently, he heads one of the world’s great orchestras, the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London. He has also recorded dozens of CDs featuring the music of composers such as Dvořák, Martinů, Janáček and Smetana. At different times in his career, Mr Bělohlávek led the Prague Symphony, the Czech Philharmonic, and also founded and directed the Prague Philharmonia. His recent appearance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he conducted Dvořák’s Rusalka was his third visit to the opera house.

“The first time I was here I conducted Káťa Kabanová by Janáček, in about 2002, and then I returned two years later for Janáček’s Jenufa. This is my third visit with Rusalka and Eugene Onegin.”

I asked Mr. Bělohlávek how much time he had to rehearse the opera before it opened.

“The preparation time was actually quite short compared to normal productions, and because it was a remake it was even a bit shorter. We had about ten days with the singers, a few rehearsals with the orchestra, then the stage orchestra and soon after, we had the open dress rehearsal.”

Jiří Bělohlávek performs regularly with major orchestras around the world, from the Berlin and London Philharmonic orchestras, to those of Vienna and Tokyo. I asked him what was unique about conducting at the Met.

“To be a conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, this is really a special task and a special occasion. The Met Opera produces enormously intense works. It’s necessary because the number of productions that take place in that place is remarkable. So everybody is pushed and everybody has to be at his height, in his best form.”

The Czech conductor says that working with the Met’s orchestra, in particular, left a deep impression.

Renee Fleming,  photo: CTK
“Of course, for the conductor probably the most impressive and most wonderful thing is the collaboration with the Met orchestra, which is one of the best orchestras in the world. This is something which makes the work very beautiful and very exciting as well. Add to this that everything is done in a wonderful friendly and creative atmosphere, and you have the picture of what this looks like.”

American soprano Renee Fleming, sang the role of Rusalka in the Met’s production this season. It was Mr Bělohlávek’s first time working with the soprano.

“Renee Fleming is the first lady of the opera house; she is a great star and a wonderful artist with all the qualities one could imagine. She had a wonderful approach to the role, and to the whole procedure of studying the work anew. She was a great collaborator and I’m very proud to be her partner in this opera. I’m looking forward to any future opportunity to work with her.”

Michael Beckerman is a historical musicologist at New York University, who specializes in Czech music.

“This production of Rusalka had a kind of effortless flow to it, which is only something you would recognize in its absence. It’s like bad stage lighting in an opera. When the flow isn’t right in an opera, you sense something is wrong and you don’t know what it is. But in this case, you sensed that something was right and you didn’t know what it was – and I think it was that sense of flow, and that it is really a sign of mastery for a conductor”