The Pirates of Penzance, 2017. Photo by Cory Weaver.

A Soprano out of Water

I suspect that the first question many audience members will ask upon attending Antonin Dvořák’s Rusalka for the first time is “Where has this opera been all our lives?” The current Lyric production marks the first time this Rusalka has been performed in Kansas City, which in itself may be surprising enough. But consider its history elsewhere. While the opera was immensely popular on its native soil following its 1901 premiere, it has not travelled well outside of Eastern Europe. The first American production, at Chicago’s Sokol Hall, was not under the auspices of a regular opera company. The first British production was not mounted until 1959, and it finally reached the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1993. Since then it has grown in popularity, owing largely to the enthusiastic support of opera superstar Renee Fleming, who first attracted national attention when she sang Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon” in the Met Council auditions and since then has sung the complete role on numerous stages throughout the world.

In looking for reasons for its slow acceptance, one could cite the fact that few singers are versed in the Czech language. Yet the Lyric performed exclusively in English for the first forty years of its existence, and some Midwest companies still follow this practice. Clearly language alone does not answer our question.

Maybe the problem is that this opera was seen an insufficiently sophisticated for modern tastes. It is, after all, a fairy tale; yet unlike the most popular fairy-tale opera, Hansel and Gretel, it lacks the happily-ever-after ending that would make it appealing to young children.

Perhaps the real reason for its relative obscurity lies in its principal strengths – Dvořák’s lush, romantic score and the sweet simplicity of its plot. The turn of the century was a transitional time in Western music, and instead of looking forward to the avant-garde music and drama of the twentieth century, Dvořák’s music seems to look backwards to the romanticism of the nineteenth. The 1890’s and the years that followed marked the rise of verisimo operas, with their gritty realism – think of the famous double bill of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, along with Puccini’s most direct contribution to the genre, Il tabarro, all of which end with a jealous husband stabbing his wife’s lover. Of course Puccini’s La bohème remains a repertoire staple, but despite the romantic music, it is essentially a story of an impoverished woman whose death is in part attributable to her inability to afford medical care and a warm place to stay.

Beyond this, musical tastes were changing. Aria-based operas were giving way to a more dramatic style of music drama in which extended monologues and repetition were believed to slow down the action. Even the very concept of tonality came under attack. Any music which featured the flowing melodic lines that Dvořák loved – in short, the type of music most operagoers enjoy – was considered, to use the modern term, “retro.”

Even with revived interest in this opera, many companies seem to be embarrassed by its unabashed romanticism, especially in Europe. A Bavarian State Opera production portrayed Vodník, Rusalka’s loving father, as wicked child molester; another European production portrayed him as a murderer, who has killed his wife, concepts with no support in the actual text (though present in other versions of the legend). Other productions, displaying the directors’ discomfort with fairy tales, turn the entire opera into a dream sequence.

Times, however, have changed, and what was old has become new. Maybe we are ready for a romantic yet tragic love story set to music that is designed not simply to show off singers’ virtuosity but rather to tug at our heartstrings. Such an opera is Rusalka.

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