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

The Rusalka Sources

While the principal source of Rusalka’s story was Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Kvapil, the librettist, cited other source material as well, including Friedrich de la Motte Fougues’ 1811 novel Undine and Hauptman’s 1896 play The Sunken Bell. Actually, tales about sea creatures seeking to become human go back at least to Medieval times, most notably the tale of Melusine, a woman who was punished for her revenge against her wife-abusing father by being condemned to change into a half-serpent every Saturday. Virtually all versions of the legend, however, have the following plot elements in common: a non-human female is transformed into a human because she has fallen in love with a human male, who betrays her for another woman, leading to disaster.

Most Americans probably know The Little Mermaid from the Disney studio’s film adaptation, so this would be a good time to look at Andersen’s story. It tells of a Merman King, a widower with five daughters, one of whom was obsessed with learning about the world above the waters. At age fifteen mermaids are given the opportunity to swim to the surface and observe the world above. When the youngest daughter’s turn comes, she observes a shipwreck and rescues a prince from drowning. She falls in love with the prince and wishes she were human so she could join him in his world. She has a second motive – she has been told that humans, unlike mermaids, have immortal souls, whereas mermaids dissolve into sea foam when they die. (This “religious” element is absent in the Disney version). She is also told that she could obtain a human soul if she could win the love of a human man. However, she would die immediately if the prince were to marry someone else.

As in the opera (and Disney), she goes to a witch for assistance. The witch grants her request, asking for her voice in return. Once on land, she wins the love of the prince, but she is unable to confirm that she is the one who saved his life. He tells her he is considering marrying her, but his father is pressuring him to marry a princess from a neighboring country. Upon meeting the princess he erroneously believes that she, rather than the mermaid, is the one who saved his life, and he marries her. The witch tells the mermaid that she can save her own life if she kills the prince, but, as in the opera, she throws the knife into the sea, leading to her own death. However, she then discovers that the beliefs she had been taught were wrong. Rather than dissolving into foam, she becomes one of the “daughters of the air,” and she is told that she can obtain an immortal soul through the performance of good deeds.

Besides adding enough details to make a full-length movie, Disney’s writers made two significant changes from the original. One was making the witch a true villain (every Disney film must have a diabolical villain), one who actively plots to prevent the Prince and the mermaid from marrying. More important, this version may be the only one where the Prince and the mermaid marry and live happily ever after.

We have already discussed some of the ways that the opera differs from Andersen’s version as well as Andersen’s predecessors. Two additional changes should be noted. First, the character of the father is much more significant. In many versions the father is evil (in Undine, he forces his daughter into marriage for economic reasons); in the opera, he is a loving parent, who like most modern parents finds that his beloved child is out of his control. Perhaps the most significant change is the locale. Whereas all of the other versions take place in and around the sea, Rusalka takes place inland, by a couple of lakes. This is, after all, a Czech opera, and the Czech Republic has about as much sea coastline as Missouri or Kansas. By moving the story inland, Kvapil and Dvořák were able to make the story feel like a true Czech folktale.

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