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Like Water for Opera: Dvořák’s Rusalka Comes to the War Memorial

June 8, 2019

The essence that unlocked the world of language for Helen Keller was water, which she said filled her with an exquisite, quivering joy. “That word startled my soul, and it awoke,” she wrote, “full of the spirit of the morning, full of joyous, exultant song.” From an evolutionary standpoint, we all understand how she feels. We are from water, crawled through the mud in protozoan infancy. From Idomeneo and Ariadne auf Naxos, to The Flying Dutchman and Tristan and Isolde, it’s no surprise that opera composers have been fascinated with water. It seems the curtain is always rising or falling as a ship arrives, or a sea squall rages, and Dvořák’s Rusalka is perhaps the wateriest of them all.

For many decades America lost out on what critic Alex Ross once called “quite simply, one of the greatest operas ever written.” That was not the story everywhere. “Perhaps because I work frequently in Europe, I don’t feel like it was ever not popular!” says conductor Eun Sun Kim, who will conduct the June performances. “While it doesn’t belong to the main classical repertoire like Bohème or Traviata, it has been performed regularly in Europe.” America is catching up. In recent years Rusalka has been heard at the Metropolitan, Des Moines, Arizona, the Academy of Vocal Arts, Madison Opera, and in David McVicar’s Chicago Lyric production, which arrives here upon the auspicious wings of rave reviews.

Rusalka’s opening bears a striking resemblance to the start of Das Rheingold, with three sprites teasing a lonesome man at the water’s edge, but here the roles are reversed. Instead of three water nymphs — we’ll see those later — in this tale, the three feminine creatures are of the forest. They are earthy. And for the titular Rusalka, water is more prison than liberation — a “cold embrace.”

Though Rusalka’s libretto was inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid, it was not fundamentally based upon it. Librettist Jaroslav Kvapil deliberately strove to create an opera text “with the tone of Erben,” a Czech fabulist and poet. A composer of Dvořák’s stature was far above the young Kvapil’s pay grade at the time, but the story was a fit with Dvořák’s nationalistic mood upon his recent return home to Prague after his tenure at the National Conservatory of Music in New York. During that American stay, Dvořák composed his “From the New World” symphony, said to have been inspired by Native American melodies he had heard from a traveling show of “medicine men” (though of what tribe is still a matter of dispute). Of that musical influence, Dvořák wrote, “I have not actually used any of the melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music, and using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, counterpoint, and orchestral color.” The same could be said regarding Czech folk melodies in Rusalka. Dvořák’s stated intention in his final years, as he refused any instrumental commissions, was to devote himself to creating great, truly Czech operas.

A water spirit of East Slavik origins, the Rusalka has many versions, and like many a pagan deity, she seems to have lost some of her positive traits as she was interpreted by male composers of the nineteenth century. In Rusalka’s case, her life-giving power of revitalizing plants is upstaged by her man-killing talents. Whether its Homer’s sirens or Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine — the latter also said to be a source here — Rusalka cannot be divorced from her lethal aquatic sisters. Many modern-day synopses attribute some redemptive quality to Rusalka, pushing the heroic nature of sacrificing for love, and suggesting that the Prince and she more or less choose death over losing one another, à la Romeo and Juliet.

But, author’s note, I don’t quite buy it. A divine spirit forsakes her divinity to become human because of her love for a man, loses her voice, then kills the man she loves with a kiss. One doesn’t have to be a Ph.D. candidate in gender studies to see a certain negative female stereotype. Dvořák had recently set Erben’s most famous poem “The Noonday Witch,” (Polednice), as a symphonic poem. Like that work, about a woman who inadvertently suffocates her own child, Rusalka is a dark tale, and an at times a truly ominous character.

Yet like all great roles, she triumphs, if not literally, then archetypally. And it doesn’t seem too farfetched to suggest that the opera’s popularity is growing in step with the global movement towards giving stories of female oppression a wider airing. A recent production at the Bayerische Staatsoper gave a literal and modern take on this, placing Rusalka in a flooded basement full of sex slaves in Act I, an admirable feat of stagecraft with singers ankle deep in water, though highly disturbing. On a much lighter note, J.K. Rowling did her part to improve the water spirit’s image when  her “merpeople,” siren-like creatures, allowed Harry Potter to save an extra underwater hostage The Goblet of Fire.

Kvapil’s Rusalka is a gripping story, and the music sells it with gorgeous melodies and rich orchestrations that sound more born than composed. “There are several recognizable personal motives in Rusalka, which appear in instrumentation, rhythm, and tonality from the prelude to the final moment,” says Kim. “My favorite part is how clearly Dvořák divided the fairytale realm and the human world with different forms of music.”

One of Rusalka’s motives was based on a fragment from a never completed cello sonata, and there is something cellolike in her music. Though a soprano, she sings from the depths, and ideally the voice conveys her many years of longing, and the tragedy to come. And the famous “Song to the Moon” is far from a one-hit wonder. Rusalka has numerous beautiful arias. Perhaps the most startling music is the act two duet with Vodnik, the water goblin. In a full-tilt rage, Rusalka expresses the rock-and-hard-place angst of so many 19th-century heroines. Forsaken by her father, lost to her lover, she cries out at the uselessness of her existence in a fervent, and not at all little-mermaidy way.

Though an immediate hit at its premier in Prague in 1901, Rusalka failed to launch abroad. Even as nearby as Vienna, Gustav Mahler tried, but couldn’t make a production happen. Some posit he backed off, concerned that the act two portrayal of the aristocracy might offend. Mahler had better luck promoting Smetana’s Bartered Bride, which has been a mainstay of repertoire on both sides of the Atlantic since its premier in 1866. Meanwhile, an earlier Rusalka, by Russian composer Alexander Dargomyzhsky, premiered in St. Petersburg in 1856 and appears to have had its American premiere in San Francisco at the Columbia Theater, in January 1922, by a traveling Russian opera troupe, who presented it that spring in New York at the Amsterdam Theater as “Mermaid.” This was 72 years before Dvořák’s water nymph was given a full production at the Metropolitan Opera, starring Czech soprano Gabriela Beňačková. Janáček fared better as well, with his Jenůfa premiering at the Met in 1924 with Maria Jeritza, though it was followed by a long gap midcentury. But even Janáček’s other operas penetrated the iron curtain more than Rusalka, with The Makropoulos Case arriving in San Francisco in 1966, Jenůfa in 1969, and Kát’a Kabanová in 1977, all in English. Kurt Herbert Adler commissioned the first transliterations of Jenůfa for a 1980 production in the original Czech. (Score one for San Francisco. The Met didn’t do it in Czech until ’92.)

Other important champions of Czech opera include conductors Eve Queler and Charles Mackerras, though Seattle Opera’s Speight Jenkins should get the credit for putting the ball through the hoop with the 1990 version of Rusalka starring Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, and Ben Heppner. No harm done by the fact that it arrived fast on the heels of the colossal success of Disney’s Little Mermaid.

Nothing need be read into the opera’s previous neglect. Conductor James Conlon, who has worked tirelessly to uncover lost or underperformed works, has spoken of a preconception that if something has not been performed it must not be any good, an idea he rejects completely. Not to put too fine a point on it, one major reason Czech opera did not have a bigger presence internationally for much of the 20th century is the fact the many of its most eloquent musical advocates were either killed or displaced by war. Soprano Emmy Destinn, a sympathizer with the Czech nationalist cause, and but one example, spent the duration of World War I under a kind of house arrest.

The process of rediscovering repertory is ongoing. In 2005, Berkeley Repertory Theatre performed Brundibár, a one act children’s opera by Czech Jewish composer Hans Krása, along with Comedy on the Bridge by another Czech composer, Bohuslav Martinů. Brundibar was originally performed at Terezín concentration camp, contrived as musical propaganda. I was involved in Berkeley Rep’s production as understudy to the female lead, which meant that like all understudies, I spent hours just watching, and listening. Most of the original cast of Czech children, along with the composer, were killed at Auschwitz. Hearing that music come out of the mouths of the happy, Berkeley children was chilling. One can only imagine what might have been for the music of Czechoslovakia, but for the wars. Rusalka’s librettist, Kvapil, fought in the resistance of both wars. At the time of his death in 1950, he was one of the country’s leading poets, named a “national artist.”

Czech music suffered behind the Iron Curtain as well. One musical family that lived through this era is that of Radoslava Biancalana. A soprano with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Philharmonia Baroque, and other local ensembles, she now serves as the Czech dialogue coach for the San Francisco Opera.

Born in Hodonín, the Czech town in which Janáček’s Jenůfa is set, Biancalana came to the States in 1993, when she was just shy of eighteen. “If the wall hadn’t come down, we wouldn’t have been able to leave. My family were not friendly with the communist system. We grew up in church. God had no place in communist regime. Basically, they used church as monitoring system, because they considered us enemies.”

For Biancalana, whose mother was a church organist and choir director, Rusalka holds a special significance. “My grandfather, whom I never met, made puppet productions, painted them, made the costumes and sets, and put them on for school children with my grandmother, singing the roles himself. My family still have the puppets. Rusalka was one of the operas he put on, so I grew up with Rusalka. I’m invested!”

The late Elena Servi, Italian coach at San Francisco Opera for many decades, used to say that only if someone learned a language before puberty could they truly speak it without any perceptible accent, so Biancalana’s speech still bears the lovely lilt of her native land. But in singing, with hard work, one can come close. Biancalana says her work is going well. Speaking of Rachel Willis-Sørensen, who will sing the title role, she says, “She sounds totally native now. Already, I have no notes for her.”

“The consonant clusters were challenging, but it’s just a matter of practice and repetition,” says Willis-Sørensen, who will also face the substantial challenge of conveying character and drama during the long period of muteness onstage.

Czech dialects vary greatly by city. “Jenůfa is in Moravian,” Biancalana says, “which can be equated to low German with a lot of country dialect, while the equivalent of high German would be Prague’s dialect, as in The Makropoulos Case.” Rusalka is written in poetic Czech, verse, so another thing Biancalana helps the singers with is planning out the architecture of the phrases, correlating the rhymes for emphasis, as one does in Shakespeare. “We do it in a lot of detail,” she says. “Most of them welcome it. For some singers, it is massive panic time.”

The sheer number of consonants is intimidating. I have Biancalana coach me on the opening line of “Song to the Moon.” Once we get going, I can see she’s right, it’s easier than it looks. Vowel-wise, singers are in luck with only five vowels. Contrast that with French, which has more than a dozen, not counting nasal vowels. “It’s a big revelation for a lot of singers,” she says, “that singing in Czech is actually very comparable to Italian, because the language sits up front in the mask. All the vowels are open, and there are no modifications. Obviously, we have a ton of consonants, but all the consonants fit into the vowel spaces.” For me, fitting those consonants right there in the middle of my mouth is surprising. There is so much air swooshing around on the tongue. “You have to pass a lot of air through it,” Willis-Sørensen says.

The rules of Czech pronunciation are simple, including always stressing the first syllable. But this stressed first syllable can be a pitfall for singers. “The stress is not shown by length but by shortness,” Willis-Sørensen says, demonstrating with the composer’s name. “Dvoh-zhaaaaaaaak.”

Listening to recordings of “Song to the Moon” from over the years, you will find more scooping than Baskin-Robbins, with singers coming at the beginning of the words from below the pitch. Biancalana says this is a quick way to try to accent the first syllable, though it is the wrong way. “That doesn’t exist in Czech. I tell them, ‘it sounds to me like you’re sliding on a banana peel.’ We come from above, and it’s short, and loaded with air. I have to tell them ‘no banana peel!’” Willis-Sørensen agrees. “A lot of people go Russian,” she says, “especially if they’ve sung in Russian.”

“This is a very percussive language,” says Biancalana, cataloguing several minute but significant tips for “lifting the language off the page.” She says, “You’re the percussion section and you have a lot of different instruments. And you have to choose which one to play when. If you decide only to play one, it will be a very deflated, uninteresting performance. You have to use the language.”

The “Song to the Moon” has inspired beautiful renditions by singers unsuited to the role as a whole, including Lucia Popp, who is a lighter coloratura. And a mezzo version, by Frederica von Stade, is loved by many. The role has had its star proponents before Renée Fleming, who undoubtedly has done the most in this country to make it a mainstay. Among the Czech sopranos who made the most of their home-field advantage were Emmy Destinn, Milada Šubrtová, Gabriela Beňačková, and Jarmila Novotná, to name a few. For Kim, the language is no barrier. “The main roles are vocally demanding and the Czech language requires extra work because most singers and audiences aren’t familiar with it, but the beauty of Dvořák’s musical language is powerful and can speak to all of us.”

My one trip to Prague became a spontaneous all-night junket, hopping from jazz club to jazz club with a harmonica player I’d met on the train from Berlin. If you’re not careful, studying up on Rusalka can have a similar effect, with labyrinthine wanderings and delightful surprises along a journey you never planned to take.

If you’re tempted, you may enjoy listening to the WQXR’s Podcast He Sang, She Sang, the episode titled “Nymphs, Witches, and Gnomes: the Magic of Rusalka.” Matthew Gurewitsch’s “Secret Weapon of Czech Opera’s Velvet Revolution” profiles the woman who paved the way with her translations and transliterations, and if you are attending the opera, be sure to read Jefferey S. McMillan’s article in the program, which contains an interesting account of the opera’s mid-century American floundering, as well as its emergence in the 1970s at some unexpected venues, including University of Southern California and San Diego Opera.

Much has been made of Dvořák’s homesickness during his years in America, but no one can say he did not make the most of his time here, composing some of his best-known works, and receiving important advice from conductor Anton Seidl, who encouraged him to make a true study the great operas of Wagner, Verdi, and Meyerbeer. But Dvořák, who suffered from agoraphobia, was homesick. In the spring of 1893, learning of a community with many Bohemian immigrants like himself, Dvořák took his family to the small town of Spillville, Iowa, where he admired the birdsong of the countryside and enjoyed playing the organ at a Czech church. (Dvořák was devout. His Stabat Mater is perhaps his most-familiar work.)

In 1992, the prolific opera critic David Littlejohn included Rusalka on a list of “runners-up” — operas that are performed, but not frequently. “The operas that head the list seem relatively secure in their positions,” he wrote. “The bottom third or quarter, however, will vary considerably from year to year, depending on producers’ search for variety, how long a work has been off the schedule, and the changing preferences of singers and audiences.” Since that writing, Rusalka has swum up out of the deep end, to be sure.

Despite his homesickness, Dvořák lavished his considerable talent upon America with a powerful generosity of spirit. Now that his greatest operatic achievement is meeting a deservedly wide audience here, it seems America is finally ready to return the favor.

Lisa Houston is a feature contributor to Classical Singer magazine and San Francisco Classical Voice, and the founder of SingerSpirit.com, a website for singers.