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 famous fairy tale, 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 tale, 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 arch 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 rendition, centered around the mermaid’s romantic adventures, Dvořák’s opera focuses on Rusalka’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 sappy stories with happy endings and are in the mood for something a little bit 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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Get to know our New Resident Artists!

This year, AVA welcomes nine new Resident Artists! Get to know them here through a fun Q&A and come meet them in person at the New Artist Recitals, on 9/20 and 9/21. The Recitals are available to AVA subscribers.  Stay tuned for more news and updates about our Artists and the 2018-2019 AVA season, coming soon on the blog!

Timothy Murray, baritone

Timothy

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I started off in theater and was really involved. In middle school, the symphony was doing Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and they asked me to perform in a skit of the story beforehand. They asked me to play Peter and I got free tickets to the symphony. That was my first experience with classical music. I started studying opera my junior year of undergrad. I started as a theater major, I loved the classic works, but I fell in love with opera and added a music degree.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

I heard of AVA through my friends, Roy Hage and Oliver Sewell, who are current Resident Artists here. I most look forward to the coaching experience. The teachers here are internationally renowned. I’ve heard so many great things about the fabulous Maestro and am also super excited to work with Bill Stone.

What’s your favorite role you have performed?

Dandini in Cenerentola.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

Rusalka – I’m super excited to sing in Czech. And Roméo and Juliette, because it’s such a classic and I’ve never worked on it before. I’ve done the play, but not the opera.

Chelsea Laggan, mezzo-soprano

Chelsea

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I started taking voice lessons after I saw my first opera. I was playing bassoon in my high school orchestra and they took us to see La bohème at Opera Philadelphia. I thought, “Woah, what is that?” I was thirteen and I asked my mom for voice lessons that year.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

I did the MET competition at AVA in 2017. While I was here, I spoke with a couple of teachers who encouraged me to audition. I started looking into AVA’s history and thought it would be a fantastic location and environment for me. I look forward to being able to be around opera all the time at such a high level. There’s nowhere else you get to be immersed in opera 24/7—to sit in on rehearsals, to listen to your colleagues, to have something to aspire to in your peers and coaches.

What’s your favorite role you have performed?

Dido in Dido and Aeneas.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

I’m excited for all of them, but especially for Rusalka, because it’s not a typical student production. You’d never get to do that in undergrad. I’m also excited for Suor Angelica and Così fan tutte because I’ve never gotten to do a full Mozart.

Alice Chung, mezzo-soprano

Alice

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I started taking classical voice lessons in college. I started working with graduate students who were TAs and slowly worked myself up to singing with actual teachers. I majored in sociology, something completely unrelated to music. Singing was always supposed to be a hobby, but I loved it and I found it just clicked — so it became a pursuit.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

I’ve always known of AVA, it’s always been in the back of my mind. AVA singers are incomparable — AVA was always there in the horizon for me. I really look forward to the experience. You really can’t compare the quality of AVA teachings and the coachings to anything else.

What’s your favorite role you have performed?

Playing the witch in Hansel and Gretel was fun. I also covered Azucena in Il trovatore, one of my all-time dream roles.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

Roméo and Juliette. It’s shocking, but I’ve not been a principal in a French opera. I’m excited to have more French in my life!

Aubrey Ballarò, soprano

Aubrey.jpg

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I did a lot of musical theater growing up. My parents were always fascinated by my love for music because they’re not musicians at all. My father set up an audition for me for Toledo Opera when I was thirteen and they brought me on board as one of their choristers. My first opera as a chorus member was Roméo and Juliette, and I heard soprano Barbara Shirvis sing “Je veux vivre.” It was the first aria I had ever heard and it was sung with full orchestra in the theater during the sitzprobe. That’s when I knew I needed to start opera singing.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

I met Danielle Orlando at Oberlin in Italy, in Arezzo, and we kept in touch. She suggested I move to the east coast after Oberlin. So I’ve been in Philly for the past four years and now I’m here! I’m excited to gain as much knowledge as possible and to be surrounded by such an amazing team.

What’s your favorite role you have performed?

Ms. Wordsworth in Albert Herring was a lot of fun—I love to make people laugh.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

I’m most excited for Così fan tutte. I’ve done it twice, once during Oberlin in Italy and once in Vancouver. Now I get to dust it off and learn it from a new perspective!

Renée Richardson, soprano

Renee

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I’ve always sung. The first time was in fourth grade when everyone was forced to sing in choir. It wasn’t a desire of mine, but we had to do it. There was a solo everyone wanted to do. I didn’t raise my hand, but the teacher called on me anyway — so that was my first solo! Against my will, in fourth grade.

I moved around a lot — I went to a lot of different schools, so even though I did some choir in middle school and at the beginning of high school, it wasn’t consistent. I didn’t get back into choir until my junior year, and even then I didn’t realize music was something people did with their lives. When I went to college in Florida I was a biology major. I joined the choir, but science was my main focus.

By my junior year, even though I wanted to be a vet, I was encouraged to pursue singing more seriously. I’m Haitian-American and to my family music is not a career. It was tough because my family questioned my decision. Now they’re on board, but initially I needed so much support — my voice teachers and coaches were really kind and really pushed me to pursue singing. Junior year in undergrad is when I officially committed to it.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

Everyone knows about AVA. I remember reading about Joyce DiDonato, something about her not getting a role in school, feeling like she’d never make it and then going to AVA. So I looked into it. I became really obsessed with the AVA website. People discouraged me from applying and said I wasn’t ready, but at a certain point I got tired of listening to other people’s advice. So I was like “I’m just gonna do it.” I just look forward to growing here. I feel like my musical career started a little on the late side, so to get this top-of-the-line training is exactly what I need.

What’s your favorite role you have performed?

Suor Angelica. I love the passion and the hope she embodies. And Béatrice in Béatrice et Bénédict was really fun. I loved playing someone sassy and flirtatious.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

I’m excited for all the operas, but especially for Rusalka — when people think of Rusalka, they think of Renée Fleming… so Renée Richardson has a lot to live up to!

Lev Voronov, bass

Lev

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I began learning to sing at the Glinka Choir College in Saint Petersburg ten years ago. Those were my first lessons. In 2011, I began studying at a conservatory where my vocal teacher was Vladimir Vaneyev, who is well known in Russia and is the principal soloist of the Mariinsky Theatre. In 2016 I began studying at the Yelena Obraztsova International Academy of Music, in St. Petersburg.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

At the Yelena Obraztsova International Academy of Music, I had coachings and master classes with Olga Makarina, the principal soloist at the Metropolitan Opera. She told me about Bill Schuman, whom I auditioned for, and he encouraged me to apply to AVA. I’m looking forward to developing my singing, language and acting skills here.

What are some of your favorite roles you have performed?

Leporello from Don Giovanni, two years ago in Russia.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

Così fan tutte, because it was a recent Metropolitan Opera production. To be able to perform the same opera here is exciting!

Kara Mulder, soprano

Kara

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

My entire family is made up of opera singers. My mother is an opera singer and my father was, too. So I joke that I didn’t have a choice, because that’s all I knew. I was probably twelve before I realized not everyone’s life revolved around music. I’ve always loved music so much and poured all my energy into it, whether it was musical theatre, choir or Church music. I went to high school and university for music.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

Being from Philadelphia, AVA is the pinnacle of performance. I used to come to AVA’s shows as a kid. So being part of AVA has been a dream of mine for years. I’m excited to learn and soak up all this knowledge from my teachers, coaches and colleagues, to have the operatic experience of a lifetime.

What are some of your favorite roles you have performed?

Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte — she’s fiery, but she’s also sensitive. I think Mozart’s way of crafting timeless characters is so genius.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

Rusalka. I think it’s so cool to sing in Czech. I also think the dramatic challenges will be very intense and it will be exciting to workshop something a little more intimate, since it’s a piano production.

Eric Delagrange, bass

Eric

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I got my B.A. in music education. My voice teacher pointed out to me that I had a deep voice and suggested opera. So I went on to graduate school for voice performance.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

I attended the Russian Opera Workshop two years ago and I began taking lessons with Bill Schuman every few months, whenever I was in New York. I’m excited to sing every day with other people, to work really hard to create something bigger than myself.

What’s your favorite role you have performed?

I enjoy playing drunks. I’ve played Figaro in Le Nozze di Figaro, Pistola in Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff, and Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Zoroastre.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

I’m most excited for Rusalka — it’s one of the first operas I ever saw. The music is gorgeous, it’s such a beautiful blend of composers.

Yihan Duan, soprano

Yihan

When and how did you first begin singing opera?

I began singing at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

What drew you to AVA and what do you look forward to during your time here?

AVA is very well renowned, so many opera stars go through here. I’m really excited to gain as much knowledge as possible in opera. I’m also looking forward to the many opportunities I will have to act.

What is your favorite role you have performed?

Liù from Turandot.

Which productions are you most excited for during this season at AVA?

Le Villi, because I love Puccini. And Rusalka, because I think the story is wonderful.

Written by Tania Bagan