An innocent young water creature falls in love with a handsome prince and wants to become human. Her wish is granted but in the process she loses her voice and, ultimately, the prince. Sounds like “The Little Mermaid,” right?
Well, close enough.
These plot elements from Antonin Dvorak’s 1901 opera, “Rusalka,” are essentially the same as those in the Hans Christian Andersen story. But “Rusalka” has a number of differences drawn from Czech fairy tales that make it darker and more adult, including the prince’s death from Rusalka’s kiss. Still, the combination of a familiar story and a familiar composer is what N.C. Opera is counting on to attract those who don’t know the piece to its March 30 performance in Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall.
Twenty-five years ago, American audiences were less familiar with “Rusalka,” most only aware of its signature aria, “Song to the Moon.” But in the early 1990s, U.S. opera companies began staging it, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which has championed “Rusalka” by programming it regularly, including the current season.
Last month, the Met relayed a performance of “Rusalka” to nearly 750 movie theaters in the U.S., including three in the Triangle. But Eric Mitchko, general director of N.C. Opera, isn’t too concerned about producing “Rusalka” so soon afterward.
“I think when people see an opera they like, they want more of it,” he said. “I also think there’s a big difference in attending a live performance versus watching a TV or film version.”
Mitchko thinks the public’s familiarity with Dvorak is a definite draw.
“Anyone who has heard Dvorak – the ‘New World Symphony’ or his chamber works – will respond to this opera’s gorgeous, warm orchestral writing, “ he said.
At this production, the audience will experience Dvorak’s lush orchestration in a direct way because the opera is being presented in concert form with the orchestra on stage. Conductor Timothy Myers chose the format because the other venues the company uses have orchestra pits too small for the number of musicians required.
To Myers, Dvorak’s symphonic mastery is one of the piece’s strengths.
“Dvorak encapsulates the drama, bringing it to life with different musical motifs and colors, especially in the depiction of nature,” he said. “Dvorak is noted for the great full-throttle finales in the later symphonies, and I feel he writes like that all through ‘Rusalka.’ ”
The production will be semi-staged, with soloists in costume and stage movement to indicate plot points. Myers said Meymandi Hall will be transformed in ways audiences have not seen before.
“We want to put people in a different world. We’ve spent a lot of our resources and time trying to accomplish that,” he said. He’s not revealing exactly how, saving that surprise for those who attend.
Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury, already a seasoned Verdi and Puccini singer, is looking forward to taking on the title role again (her first was in San Antonio in January and she’ll sing it in Amsterdam in May). El-Khoury likes the way Rusalka makes the audience think about what it means to be human.
“She is driven by love, discovering it for the first time and wanting to experience all of it,” El-Khoury said. “It’s amazing to see her go from that mindset to become a sacrificing, forgiving creature, in some ways more human than the humans.”
The other leads for this performance have impressive experience. Tenor Russell Thomas (Prince) has had major roles in the Met’s “The Magic Flute” and “The Flying Dutchman” and debuted last year at London’s Royal Opera. Dramatic soprano Heidi Melton (Foreign Princess) participated in Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Met and the Berlin Opera, and is being hailed as the next great Wagner singer. Baritone Tom Fox (Rusalka’s father, the Water-Goblin) has sung many roles at the Met, La Scala and the Paris Opera. The cast has seven other members plus a chorus.
“Rusalka” is usually programmed only by the largest companies because of the daunting requirements – the prince sings a high C at the end of three difficult acts, Rusalka’s character has a number of even higher notes, and all the singers must be able to ride Dvorak’s thick orchestration. Four-year-old N.C. Opera’s decision to produce the piece reflects the company’s continued confidence in its vision and resources.