About the Composer
The life of Antonin Dvorák is one of music's great success stories. He was born in the humblest possible circumstances, and rose - by virtue of luck, hard work, and vast genius - to a position of extraordinary prominence among musicians, both during his lifetime and forever after. Not only is he the most popular composer the Czech Republic has produced, he is among the most popular of all composers. His orchestral music, including his nine symphonies, his cello concerto, and much great chamber music, has a central place in the international repertoire. His many operas are performed all the time in his homeland, and his greatest opera, Rusalka, has been cheered wherever opera is performed.
Dvorák was born in 1841 to a poor butcher and innkeeper in the village of Nelahozeves, in Bohemia. The town was so small the boy had to move to a neighboring town to take German lessons. When he rejoined his family, his German hadn't improved but he had learned to play the violin, the viola, the piano, and the organ. His musical interest was at first squelched by his family's poverty, and he spent much of his youth working in his father's slaughterhouse. But eventually music reasserted itself, and at the age of 16 Dvorák escaped to Prague, to study the organ.
The life of a poor music student, then as now, was hard. Dvorák scraped money together by playing viola in the opera orchestra pit. He lived with a goldsmith, earning his keep by teaching his landlord's daughters music. One of the girls married a wealthy nobleman; the other eventually married Dvorák, but first the composer languished in unrequited love for a decade while he struggled to make himself financially and socially suitable for her.
Dvorák's career grew steadily, helped along when the great composer Johannes Brahms took an interest in his work and recommended Dvorák to his publisher. Bohemia, dominated in music as in all things by Germany, was hardly the place to triumph as a composer. But with a German publisher, Dvorák found his music rapidly picked up by the Germans and devoured by the British. In fact, Dvorák spent much of his life in the 1880s going back and forth to England, where he was as celebrated and performed as any British composer. He traveled still further, and spent the early 1890s largely in the United States, in New York City and in Spillville, a small Czech-American community in Iowa. His assertion about American music - that any national musical culture we could have would develop from African-American music-proved the key to most American music-making in the twentieth century. His experiences in America inspired two of his most popular works, the "American" String Quartet and the "New World" Symphony.
Dvorák was a man of considerable religious faith; his slogan was "God, love, motherland!" A family man, he first achieved his characteristic musical voice, one free of German influence, shortly after his marriage. He traveled a great deal and brought his (eventually sizeable) family to America with him, to ward off homesickness. His friendships were similarly close, especially that with Brahms. It is a measure of Brahms' devotion that, as an older, established composer, he took it upon himself to proof Dvorák's latest compositions before publication while their composer was in faraway America.
The Czech Operatic Tradition
Dvorák was born in the part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire known as Bohemia. German language and culture dominated the empire, and Dvorák's parents (who spoke only Czech) sent their bright son off to learn German in the hopes that proficiency in the language of the rich would improve the family's fortunes. Much of Dvorák's life work was to free his land from domination by German music and to help clear a path for Czech music.
As a young music student in Prague, Dvorák met and performed the work of Bedrich Smetana, the first great Czech nationalist composer. Smetana's symphonic cycle Ma Vlast, "My Homeland," is popular even today; but Dvorák is even more indebted to Smetana's operas of rustic Bohemian life, especially The Bartered Bride. Many of Dvorák's operas concern Czech history or life among Czech peasants. Such operas seem to have little appeal outside of the Czech Republic today, and it is Dvorák's Rusalka that has traveled the furthest.
But Dvorák's operas helped pave the way for the greatest composer of opera in Czech, Leos Janacek. Janacek lived well into the twentieth century and created a handful of weird, wonderful, completely idiosyncratic operas that continue to intrigue Americans, including Jenufa, Katya Kabanova, The Makropolous Case, and The Cunning Little Vixen.
Fickle Princes and the Mermaids Who Love Them
Does the story of Rusalka sound familiar? Can you think of any other famous fictional mermaids and their romantic entanglements with well-to-do young men? About ten years ago, the Walt Disney studios entered a new era with a popular cartoon based on this story, The Little Mermaid. And you may recall the young Tom Hanks wooing the mermaid Daryl Hannah in Splash, about a decade earlier. If we kept going back in time, we'd find more and more retellings of this popular fairy tale.
Rusalka is the most successful of the many operas that tell this story. Both it and The Little Mermaid are indebted to Hans Christian Anderson's beautiful prose version, which gave the Disney version its name. Anderson wrote in Danish in the late nineteenth century. His beloved fairy-tale creations include "The Princess and the Pea," "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Brave Tin Soldier," and "The Ugly Duckling." His "Little Mermaid" is notable for its Christian piety, its terrifying witch, and its vivid descriptions of the magical world beneath the waves. Anderson's version is far darker than Disney's; in fact, the legs his mermaid obtains by trading in her voice stab her with intense pain at every step, and in the end she fails to win her prince. Yet Anderson concludes his story with a hopefulness that is entirely missing from the opera.
Another important source for Dvorák's Rusalka is the Gothic romance Undine, by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, a Prussian nobleman who wrote at the beginning of the nineteeth century. Fouqué was caught up in the first wave of Romanticism flooding across German-speaking lands; in fact, his friend, the great German Romantic writer E. T. A. Hoffmann (who created the Nutcracker story) wrote an opera based on Fouqué's Undine. In Fouqué's version, both mermaid and prince die horribly and are damned forever. All the nineteenth-century opera versions of this story, Dvorák's and Hoffmann's included, followed Fouqué's pattern.
We can continue tracing versions of the story back through the ages, past the medieval French Mélusine, past the early Germanic Lorelei to the Sirens who sang so sweetly to Odysseus. Inevitably, questions arise: why do we always tell stories about mermaids and never mermen? Why, in every source save Disney, is the union of land-dweller and sea-dweller impossible? Why does the mermaid sing so beautifully, and why must she sacrifice her voice to become a human woman? The story raises such questions and leaves it up to us to answer them.
As with any good fairy tale, interpretations are endless. This story appeals to children and adults, today and for all time. We can write it, sing it, dance it, draw it, film it; we can change its ending, update the action, reinterpret its theology, scrutinize its alarming sexual power politics; and best of all, we can just sit back and enjoy a good yarn.
Rusalka at Seattle Opera
Dvorák's fairy-tale opera was first heard and seen at Seattle Opera in the fall of 1990, in an unforgettable production that made Seattle Opera history. "Bring your binoculars," wrote the Seattle Times, "because Seattle Opera's new Rusalka production is likely to be one of the loveliest-looking shows you'll ever see." The production was designed and directed by Günther Schneider-Siemssen, who designed the Metropolitan Opera Ring, telecast on PBS in 1990. Schneider-Siemssen, who had designed six other complete Ring cycles, has also designed Rusalkas for Munich, Vienna, and the Metropolitan Opera. His Seattle Rusalka, which he described as "a symphony in lighting," was praised by the Journal American for its "stunningly seductive design, evocative of misty lakes and spell-bound forests." Also stunning and seductive was the cast at that 1990 Seattle Rusalka, which included then-unknown performers named Renee Fleming, Ben Heppner, Ealynn Voss, and Susan Graham. The Seattle production has played in Houston, San Diego, and San Francisco, and returns to Seattle with another exciting cast for Seattle Opera's final performances in the soon-to-be-renovated Seattle Opera House.
Mackerras (London) with Fleming and Heppner