Soon at AVA: An Eastern European Twist on a Classic Mermaid Story

Coming soon to AVA’s stage from a faraway land is the fairy tale-inspired Czech opera, Rusalka. Based on Slavic folklore, the story line of Antonín Dvořák’s oeuvre runs parallel to the plot of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid (1837). The three-act production, first staged in 1901, tells the story of a water nymph who falls in love with a human prince and exchanges her voice for legs to be with him in the mortal world of men. While popularized renditions of The Little Mermaid—most notably that of the Walt Disney franchise—tend to add a chipper and upbeat twist to Andersen’s original narrative, the Rusalka libretto (written by Czech poet, Jaroslav Kvapil) holds a darker fate in store for the love-stricken mermaid.

The grimness of Dvořák’s opera is perhaps due to the nature of the “rusalka” figure, a female entity in Slavic folklore associated with maliciousness and danger. Rusalkas are seen as the spirits of women who have lost their lives tragically in bodies of water—either by suicide or murder—and whose souls have been condemned to haunt those waterways for eternity.

rusalka by anna vinogradova

Русалка (Rusalka) by Anna Vinogradova, 2008.

Rusalka’s fantastical theme (complete with wood sprites and a water gnome) coupled with its language—it’s sung entirely in Czech—set the opera apart this AVA season. Adding to the production’s uniqueness is the fact that it is a piano reduction. “I’m excited because the music is stunning,” says third-year resident artist and tenor John Matthew Myers, who is cast in the role of the Prince. “The absence of an orchestra makes Rusalka an intimate experience. That lack of a physical divide between the audience and the stage creates a very immersive environment.”

Of course, the opera’s peculiarities also present a set of challenges for the singers. “The majority of the audience does not speak Czech, so we really need to inflect meaning into the words in order to tell a compelling story for non-native speakers,” explains Mr. Myers. As well as singing in a tongue they are significantly less familiar with than the romance languages, the Resident Artists must tackle the challenge of playing non-human roles. “You have to constantly be thinking about your movements and be intentional about every gesture,” says first-year soprano, Kara Mulder, who is starring in the lead role of Rusalka.

rusalka practice.jpg

Rusalka Music Director, Luke Housner, in rehearsal with cast members, Piotr Buszewski, Kara Mulder and John Matthew Myers.

Though Rusalka can be interpreted as a tragic version of The Little Mermaid­­—bring your tissues!—it is more of a coming-of-age tale than it is a love story. “There’s a huge arc of growth in Rusalka’s character,” observes Ms. Mulder. “In the beginning of the opera she’s incredibly naïve and stubborn; everyone warns her about the dangers of becoming human, but she doesn’t listen. Once she realizes she will never be able to be fully human, she matures a lot.” Unlike the Walt Disney adaptation, centered around the mermaid’s romantic adventures, Dvořák’s opera focuses on the female protagonist’s journey of self-discovery and ultimately self-acceptance.

While the story Rusalka tells is a gripping one—filled with heartbreak and love, tragedy and magic—it’s Dvořák’s music that first reeled in Luke Housner, our production’s Music Director and pianist. “I became familiar with this opera about four years ago,” explains Mr. Housner. “AVA Alumna Joyce El Khoury was contracted to sing the role [of Rusalka] in North Carolina and in Amsterdam. We worked on it together and I fell in love with it during that time. Its harmonic language just has a magnetic quality for me.”

Mr. Housner assures audience members that AVA’s performance will be nothing if not unprecedented. For one thing, his piano reduction will incorporate elements from Rusalka’s full orchestral score, so you can expect a novel twist on the instrumental accompaniment. Secondly, the staging will draw largely on Mr. Housner’s own ideas and interpretation of the libretto. “I workshopped Rusalka the past two summers in Vancouver and Toronto,” he explains. “Some of the original staging decisions I made in my summer workshops are sure to infiltrate their way into this production. They’re definitely nothing you’ve seen at the Met before!”

So, if you’ve had your fill of  happy endings and are in the mood for something a shade more ominous and unpredictable, make sure to kick off the 2019 season with some mermaid magic and grab tickets for one of AVA’s four showings of Rusalka, opening this Saturday at our Helen Corning Warden Theatre.

Written by Tania Bagan


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