Pre-performance Opera Chats


Free, insightful and informative chats are presented by featured guest speakers, 45 minutes before every mainstage COC performance.

Time/Duration: 20-minute chats, 45 minutes prior to every opera performance.
Tickets: No ticket necessary, free when you attend an opera. Arrive early as seating is limited. 

SPEAKERS

2019/2020 SEASON SPEAKERS

Stephan Bonfield is Lecturer in music, science and general studies at Ambrose University where he teaches the music history core program and advanced music theory. He is also research associate in an auditory neuroscience lab at the University of Calgary. Stephan runs his own music history and theory studio and is a senior examiner in both disciplines at the Royal Conservatory of Music. He is the dance critic for the Calgary Herald; reviews the performing arts at the Banff Centre plus new music concerts in Calgary. He now covers the National Ballet of Canada for Musical Toronto and lectures on opera for the Canadian Opera Company, Edmonton Opera and Against the Grain Theatre. 



Dr. Hannah Chan-HartleyDr. Hannah Chan-Hartley is a musicologist, active in the public sphere as a writer, speaker, and researcher. She was recently Musicologist-in-Residence at the 2018 Verbier Festival in Switzerland and at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, where she was also Managing Editor of publications. She holds a Bachelor of Music Honours in violin performance from McGill University, a Master of Philosophy in musicology and performance from the University of Oxford, and a PhD in musicology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Hannah’s research interests include the social and cultural history of music and music institutions, focusing on the Europe–North America transatlantic context from the 19th century to the present day, as well as the performance and reception history of opera (notably, the works of Richard Wagner) and orchestral music, about which she has written and presented at major conferences. She is the creator of the award-winning Visual Listening Guides (symphonygraphique.com)—a new kind of graphic listening guide for symphonic music.

 

Margaret Cormier is a PhD candidate in musicology at McGill University, where she has been a teacher’s assistant and guest lecturer in music history. She holds a Bachelor of Music with Honors in Voice Performance (2013) and a Master of Arts in Musicology (2015) from Western University. Recently, she has presented her work on opera at professional conferences in Oxford, San Francisco, and Dublin. Her current research considers the role of staging and production in creating operatic meaning, and focuses on representations of sexual violence on the operatic stage. Her PhD dissertation is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).



Wayne Gooding is a Toronto-based writer and former editor of the quarterly magazine, Opera Canada. In his earlier incarnation as a business journalist, he wrote for such publications as The Financial Post, Report on Business, Policy Options and served as editor of Canadian Business, Marketing Magazine and Financial Post Magazine. Over the past decade, he has increasingly focused on a lifelong interest in opera and music theatre. Besides Opera Canada, his byline has appeared in Playbill, Opera Now and The Wagner Journal, among other publications, and he has given lectures and presentations across Canada. For the COC, he also gives the Opera Talks series at the North York Central Library.

Kyle HutchinsonKyle Hutchinson is a Ph.D. Candidate in Music Theory at the University of Toronto. His research explores chromatic harmony in the music of Wagner and Richard Strauss. Other research interests include understanding the philosophic underpinnings of music analysis, and applying music theory to contemporary musical theatre. Kyle is also active and interested in music pedagogy, and in 2017 was one of twelve graduate students across U of T shortlisted for the university-wide award for outstanding Teaching Assistants, and has won a similar award from the Faculty of Music. Kyle has presented research at conferences across North America, and recently won the George Proctor Prize for best graduate student paper at the 2018 Canadian University Music Society Conference in Edmonton.

Brian McMillan is the Director of the Music Library at Western University in London, Ontario. In addition to a Masters of Information Studies from the University of Toronto, he holds a bachelors and masters in voice performance from McGill University. He has sung professionally with several ensembles across Canada including the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, Aradia Ensemble, Quebec's Les Violons du roy, and the chorus of the Canadian Opera Company.








SCHEDULE

SCHEDULE

Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
 

 

September 28

Turandot

Speaker: Stephan Bonfield

6:45 PM

 

October 4

Turandot

Speaker: Stephan Bonfield

6:45 PM

 

October 9

Turandot

Speaker: Hannah Chan-Hartley

6:45 PM

October 12

Rusalka

Speaker: Wayne Gooding

6:45 PM

October 15

Turandot

Speaker: Hannah Chan-Hartley

6:45 PM

October 16

Rusalka

Speaker: Stephan Bonfield

6:45 PM

October 17

Turandot

Speaker: Hannah Chan-Hartley

6:45 PM

October 18

Rusalka

Speaker: Margaret Cormier

6:45 PM

 

October 19

Turandot

Speaker: Stephan Bonfield

3:45 PM

October 20

Rusalka

Speaker: Stephan Bonfield

1:15 PM

October 22

Rusalka

Speaker: Margaret Cormier

6:45 PM

October 23

Turandot

Speaker: Wayne Gooding

6:45 PM

October 24

Rusalka

Speaker: Wayne Gooding

6:45 PM

October 25

Turandot

Speaker: Kyle Hutchinson

6:45 PM

October 26

Rusalka

Speaker: Stephan Bonfield

3:45 PM

October 27

Turandot

Speaker: Kyle Hutchinson

1:15 PM

 

 

SPEAKER SCRIPTS: LEARN ABOUT TURANDOT

Puccini's Turandot

Written by Wayne Gooding


You can hear Wayne give this lecture before the performance on  Wednesday, October 23 at 6:45 p.m.

The backstory to Puccini’s Turandot begins in March 1920, when the composer lunched in Milan with writers Renato Simoni and Giuseppe Adami to discuss possible opera subjects. Puccini had been hunting for one since the premiere of his last stage work, the three one-act operas that make up Il trittico, at New York’s Metropolitan opera in November 1918. He had toyed with a few ideas, including a setting of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, but nothing was settled. Adami had written the libretti for Puccini’s La rondine, which premiered in Monte Carlo in 1917, and Il tabarro, (The Cloak) the first part of Il trittico; starting work on the Oliver Twist idea, he had enlisted the playwright and critic Simoni to help.

At the lunch, Simoni, who had written a successful comedy about Carlo Gozzi, broached the idea of using something by that 18th-century Venetian playwright, and then Puccini specifically raised Gozzi’s fable of Turandotte. It’s not clear how well Puccini knew it, but the story had already been set by other composers, including an 1867 opera by Antonio Bassini, one of Puccini’s teachers at the conservatory in Milan, and a more recent one-act treatment in 1917 by Puccini’s contemporary, Ferruccio Busoni. Simoni had a copy of the play in his library and offered to loan it to the composer. This was not of Gozzi’s original, however, but a German adaptation by Friedrich von Schiller translated back into Italian by Andrea Maffei, a friend and librettist of Giuseppe Verdi.

Soon after that lunch, Puccini travelled to Rome and read the Turandot text Simoni gave him on the train. He was immediately attracted to a subject that promised an opera quite different from anything he had written to date. That it was a fable or fairytale rather than a naturalistic story of ordinary human passions and emotions intrigued him; the exotic Asian setting offered great scope for his harmonic and melodic coloring, gifts that had been central to his success; and he was fascinated by the tragic title character whose amorous passion, as he put it in a letter to Simoni, “has suffocated for such a long time under the ashes of her great pride.” He immediately pushed Adamo and Simoni to start on the libretto in earnest, so launching a theatrical enterprise that the composer did not live to complete and did not reach the stage until six years after its creators’ lunch in Milan.

The literary source of the opera is interesting. The immediate inspiration, as noted, was a 19th-century German version by Schiller, translated into Italian by Maffei, but the Turandot story has a longer history. The earliest clear telling is in a 12th-century text by a central Asian poet and philosopher named Nizami Ganjavi. In a work translated as Seven Beauties, there is a story about an icy princess who will only marry a man who successfully answers three riddles and must forfeit his life if he fails. The princess in this early version of Turandot is Slavic, not Chinese. The story appears again in an early 18th-century French text, Les Milles et Un Jours (A Thousand and One Days) by the French orientalist, François Petis de la Croix. Note the echo in de la Croix’s title of the famous Arabic collection of folk tales, One Thousand and One Nights. De la Croix claims to have acquired his material in travels around what we now call the Middle East, though he may have made up some of the tales. At any rate, Turandot and her riddles appear in the collection, this time set in Persia. This was the source for the Italian version by Carlo Gozzi, who adapted it in important ways. First, the action was moved to a legendary China; and second, he melded the cruel tale of love and death with a comic element that came out of Italy’s centuries-old tradition of Commedia dell’arte. This had started out as improvised street theatre, but evolved more formally into a theatre of stock characters, usually masked, and stock comic situations. You cannot underestimate the importance of Commedia dell’arte in theatre history. It’s the source of most 18th-century comic operas, for example, including Mozart’s, and you’ll encounter it again next year when the COC presents Rossini’s Barber of Seville.  

Gozzi created his version of Turandot with Commedia characters as a salvo in a war he fought with one of his Venetian contemporaries, the playwright Carlo Goldoni. Goldoni believed the Commedia tradition had grown stale and run its course, arguing in favor of a more naturalistic theatre that told the stories of ordinary people in real relationships in everyday situations. He found a ready audience for his work, and he became both successful and influential. Gozzi disagreed, however, arguing that the Commedia tradition was as vital as ever, and that he could write plays based on it that would fill theatres just as easily. To prove his point, he wrote a collection of fanciful fabula—fables or fairy tales—one of which, Turandotte, was first performed in Venice in 1762. The five-act work combined the existing Turandot riddle story but added Commedia characters as a clownish chorus that not only commented on the action of the play but also satirized the manners and foibles of its Venetian audience. Part of the comic shtick was that this unlikely quartet of Venetians had inexplicably dropped into the ancient Chinese emperor’s court.

After reading Schiller’s adaptation of the story as retranslated by Maffei, Puccini and his librettists went back to the original. The composer was adamant that he wanted Gozzi’s Commedia characters in his opera, too, and would use them for comic relief like the gravediggers in Shakespeare’s Hamlet or the Commedia troupe in Richard Strauss’s opera, Ariadne auf Naxos. The trio of characters in Puccini’s Turandot—the Chancellor, the General Purveyor and the Chief Cook—are clowns, but serve a serious narrative purpose in commenting on the action and, at a couple of key points, moving it forward.

As they worked on the project, Puccini and his librettists added another new element to the basic tale how the heroic young prince, Calaf, falls for the Princess Turandot at first sight and readily takes up thedeadly riddle challenge. Early in Act 1, in the crowds around the emperor’s palace, Calaf reconnects with his father, Timur, a deposed Tartar king now blind and cared for by a faithful young slave girl, Liù. As the plot unfolds, the gentle Liù will become a foil to the cruel Turandot, eventually committing suicide to avoid betraying Calaf. Puccini was instrumental in developing the character of Liù, who bears a marked resemblance in tone and demeanor to earlier heroines like Madama Butterfly and Mimì in La bohème: “Liù must sacrifice herself because of some sorrow,” he told his librettists, “but I don’t see how this can be developed unless we make her die under torture. And why not? Her death could be a means of softening the heart of the princess.”

Liù’s fate in fact echoes a tragic episode in Puccini’s own life. In 1909, the composer’s wife Elvira had viciously accused one of their servants, Doria Manfredi, of having an affair with her husband, and the devastated 19-year-old had committed suicide. Elvira almost went to jail after the Manfredi family proved the girl’s innocence and charged her accuser, and the affair only ended after Puccini settled with the family financially. The parallel relationships between Turandot and Liù, Elvira and Doria, are striking.

Work on Turandot progressed in fits and starts as the 1920s unfolded. Just as he had studied Japanese folk songs while composing Madama Butterfly, Puccini took a serious look at some hallmarks of traditional Chinese music, wanting to add some color to his score that, while not strictly authentic, would give it a recognizably exotic Asian tint. Real Chinese melodies are woven into the score, including a couple he heard on a music box of melodies purchased in China by a diplomat acquaintance. Here’s one of the popular tunes Puccini heard on the music box, a song dating back to the 18th century and translated as Jasmine Flower. And here from Act 1 is one of the many instances the melody figures in the opera, often associated with the title character. Puccini put an enormous amount of care into the composition of Turandot, certainly his most ambitious score. The huge chorus used both on and off stage is treated like a principal character, while in the pit, the orchestral writing is harmonically and rhythmically rich, complex and innovative. This is an opera of the 1920s, written after the catastrophe of World War I when there was great turmoil and unrest across Europe.  Mussolini and his fascists were rising to political power while Puccini was working on Turandot, and although post-war musical life had revived, its direction was as uncertain and fractured as economic and political affairs. Puccini was well aware of new trends in music and wanted to make his own statement in a Turandot score that took him into new musical territory. Here’s the short orchestral transition between the first two scenes of Act II; this is the work of a master orchestrator who is perfectly comfortable with dissonance, multiple tonalities and the jerky rhythms of the jazz age. 

He had some misgivings about himself, however, as he had had throughout his career. In March 1924, with most of the opera done, he wrote to Simoni: “I believe I have done good work; perhaps, though I have made a mistake, with all the new things people are trying today, following rough-sounding paths and discord, where sentiment—that sentiment that gives us joy and tears—has been abandoned. I have put my whole soul into this opera; we shall see whether my vibrations match those of the public.”

The pressure grew on Puccini through 1924, not least because La Scala opera house in Milan had publicly announced both the date and cast for the premiere in the spring of 1925. Puccini completed everything up to the death of Liù in Act III, but still lacked the conclusion of the piece, in which the icy Turandot was supposed to melt into Calaf’s arms. He went back and forth with Simoni and Adami to fashion a suitable text, but it came too late and was never set to music. A persistent throat problem that would be diagnosed as cancer took him to a specialist clinic in Brussels. The treatment looked promising initially, but then he suffered heart failure and died in the Belgian capital on November 29, 1924.

Turandot did not have its premiere until April 26, 1926, almost 18 months after the composer’s death. At the point where the body of Liù had been carried offstage, conductor Arturo Toscanini turned to the audience and announced that the performance would end with these final bars composed by Puccini. For the second and subsequent performances, the opera included a final duet that was reconstructed and written from Puccini’s own sketches by the Italian composer Franco Alfano. He in fact wrote two endings; Toscanini rejected the first as too long and helped edit Alfano’s work to the shorter ending that is usually performed, including in this COC production.

There has been much discussion about why, besides the circumstances of his health, Puccini found it so hard to come to terms with the ending of Turandot. One suggestion, for example, is that he was, despite his skills and experience, unable to breathe human life into Calaf and Turandot. It’s true that neither is a fully rounded character. Both are consumed throughout by a single idea—hers to avenge the rape of her ancestor, his to win Turandot’s love at whatever cost. The problem was how to get from their eloquently stated but stark and unhealthy obsessions to a warm, more-human loving relationship. Puccini knew he needed something extraordinary, just weeks before his death telling Adami that in the final duet: “Two beings almost out of this world become human because of love, and at the end, an orchestral peroration must make this love possess everyone onstage.”

Another suggestion is that he was uncomfortable with happy endings. Indeed, almost all Puccini operas end very unhappily—often to the point of death—for one or more of the principals. The problem of the happy ending is compounded insofar as it immediately follows the more characteristically tragic and moving suicide of Liù. Turandot is unusual in that it has two heroines of opposite temperament. Puccini’s issue was how to transform the inhumane Turandot into the empathetic and compassionate Liù musically. Critics recognized the dilemma right away. Writing about the Milan premiere, Alfred Kalish praised the “typically warm-hearted and luscious Puccini tunes” for Calaf and Liù, but then added that: “The reason why nothing in the part of Turandot herself has inspired Puccini with emotionally coloured music is really much to his honour. Melodies in the melting mood would have been totally at variance with the character of the icily cold and cruel Princess.” It is useless to speculate, Kalish also wrote, “how Puccini himself, with his gift of ecstatic fervour, might perhaps have written a duet which would have softened the unpleasant impression left by the death of the young slave.”

Puccini set his opera explicitly “A Pekino, al tempo della favola”—“In Beijing in fabled times.” Representations of China in legendary or fabled times may be naturalistic, but by definition are never realistic. With Turandot, the naturalism reflected the exotic fantasies of its creators, from Gozzi down to Puccini, Adami and Simoni. This COC production by Robert Wilson avoids both naturalism and realism and presents the story directly in the American director and visual artist’s signature abstract style.  There is no scenery, very few props, and no imposed concept to frame the story. Wilson does not talk about mounting or directing his productions, but about showing or making them, which is more the language of a visual artist. He serves as his own lighting director and choreographer, creating colorful and complex forms and spaces on stage in which the action unfolds, the characters more often than not in direct eye contact with the audience. This is also a theatre of tiny rather than grand gestures, even when Wilson is working with a large-scale work like Turandot. “A good actor,” he has said, “can command an audience by moving one finger.” At root, the abstract scenes Wilson creates seek to present the music and text as purely and directly as possible so that audience members are free to form their own ideas about the story. The result is undoubtedly spare and artificial compared to, say, the fake chinoiserie of the Metropolitan Opera’s larger-than-life Franco Zeffirelli production, which is part of the Met’s Live in HD program this fall, but Wilson’s approach is designed to strip the opera to its emotional and musical core without any distractions.

In 2018/19, there were 80 productions of Turandot around the world, enough to rank it the 11th most-produced opera, but still a distant fourth in the Puccini canon, well behind the 148 productions of La bohème, 136 of Madama Butterfly and 131 of Tosca. It’s a more difficult work to stage, of course, comparable to something like Verdi’s Aida in its scale, exotic setting and even details of plot and character. Verdi’s Aida and Amneris are also competing heroines, but the resolution of the emotional and psychological conflicts in their opera is final in a way that those in Turandot are not. Puccini was widely hailed as the successor of Verdi, and, straddling the 19th and 20th centuries, stands as the most modern exponent of an operatic lineage that stretches back continuously over four centuries to Jacobo Peri and Claudio Monteverdi. Considering what came before—from Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi to name the most eminent—and how little has come after, it’s ironic that Puccini left his final operatic statement incomplete, because it is also, in the words of one commmentary, “the last monument in the last golden century of one of the world’s great traditions of music theater.”

Ladies and gentlemen, enjoy this evening’s performance of Puccini’s Turandot.

Sources:

Puccini: A Biography, Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, Northeastern University Press, 2002

Puccini’s Turandot: The End of the Great Tradition, William Ashbrook and Harold Powers, Princeton University Press, 1991

Puccini: His International Art, Michele Girardi (trans. Laura Basini), University of Chicago Press, 2000

Puccini’s Version of the Duet and Final Scene of Turandot, Janet Maguire, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 74, No. 3 (1990)

Gozzi's Turandot: A Tragicomic Fairy Tale, David Nicholson, Theatre Journal, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Dec. 1979)

Puccini’s Turandot, Alfred Kalish (review of premiere), Musical Times, Vol. 67, No. 1000 (Jun. 1926)

Scandalous Secret of the Opera Master, Niall Morris, Irish Independent, Jan. 2, 2017

(accessed online: https://www.independent.ie/life/scandalous-secret-of-the-opera-master-35330732.html)

SPEAKER SCRIPTS: LEARN ABOUT RUSALKA

Dvořák’s Rusalka

Written by Margaret Cormier


You can hear Margaret give this lecture before the performances on  Friday, October 18 at Tuesday, October 22 at 6:45 p.m. and on Saturday, October 26 at 3:45 p.m.


Rusalka
premiered on March 31, 1901 at the National Theatre in Prague. It was Antonín Dvořák’s tenth opera, but it has been the only one to see real success abroad. Dvořák’s reception history poses an interesting problem: prior to the 1990s, international opera companies were worried that Dvořák’s operas were too Czech, and would not be of interest to a wider audience. However, within the Czech Republic, Dvořák was often criticized during life for not performing Czech Nationalism sufficiently or correctly. And yet today, Dvořák’s international popularity far surpasses that of any other Czech composer. In this chat, we will look at Rusalka, one of Dvořák’s most popular and beloved works, and unpack its relationship with Czech nationalism, to see how Dvořák’s Czech musical identity reveals itself through this opera.

Until 1918, the Czech lands were under the control of the Hapsburgs, and were thus seen seen as merely rural satellites of Vienna by their neighbours both within the empire and without. This prejudice has gone on to inform much of the historical commentary written about Dvořák throughout the twentieth century, likely due in part to the German and Austrian pedigree of musicology as a discipline. The article on Dvořák in the current edition of the New Grove Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians—the most authoritative music history encyclopedia we have—still opens with the sentence: “Dvořák was born into the unsophisticated cultural and social background of a Czech family”.[i]Austro-German stereotypes about the Czechs have not all been so explicitly negative, but they all hinge on this alleged lack of sophistication and culture. For instance, one musicologist wrote in 1941 that Dvořák was a “child of nature,” “gifted with all the metaphysical depth of his [Slavic] race.”[ii]

In much of the history of discourse around Dvořák, we can recognize two incompatible myths: the first says that Dvořák valiantly overcame his unsophisticated upbringing in rural Bohemia, and against all odds rose to international recognition thanks to his God-given genius; the second is the myth of the incorruptible Bohemian spirit that, despite Dvořák’s efforts to work in a learned, European style, drew him forever back to a “natural” simplicity of music that was his Czech birthright. Beneath these stereotypes lies a core disagreement in the reception of Dvořák’s music: is he great in spite of his Czech heritage, or because of it?

The development of a distinctly Czech style of opera began in the nineteenth century. Previous to this century, Italian and French opera had been hegemonic in Europe and North America, but the revolutionary fervor of the nineteenth century, and the rise of nationalism across the country, inspired a desire for music and art that spoke to a national sensibility. German opera became a major force in the middle of the nineteenth century, with Wagner as its crown jewel, leaving even Italian composers—who until this time had led the way—scrambling to conceive of a national style for the modern world. Composers in Russia, Poland, Hungary, and Bohemia followed Germany’s example and worked tirelessly to define styles distinctly their own.

The first Czech opera is generally considered to be František Škroup’s The Tinker, which premiered in Prague in 1826. While The Tinker was certainly heavily influenced by popular French and Italian operatic styles, it is based on an original Czech libretto, and Škroup’s music was shaped by contemporary tastes represented in Prague’s theatres. This early attempt paved the way for the towering figure of Bedřich Smetana, who would define the nationalist Czech style for opera. Smetana’s operas, written between the 1860s and 1890s in Prague, are filled with musical inflections from Czech folk music, and the rhythms of Czech dances. His most famous opera, The Bartered Bride, still generally serves as the archetype for Czech nationalist opera, with the popular character of its music, and its charming, uncomplicated plot depicting Bohemian village life. The Czech national style established by Smetana provided the background against which Dvořák’s work was judged during his lifetime. Indeed, questions about what it means to be Czech, in the primarily western-European world of opera and classical music, have coloured our continued discourses about Dvořák and his contributions to the music historical canon.

In Dvořák’s work, we see a clear progression from modern Germanic styles influenced heavily by Wagner, to an adoption of a simpler, more accessible style imbued with themes from Slavic folklore—he himself referred to these later operas as “national rather than Wagnerian.” And yet in his lifetime, local critics accused Dvořák of not supporting the cause of Czech nationalism, and maligned his operas for being insufficiently Czech. As much as Dvořák saw his project as a nationalist one, his particular brand of Czech nationalism did not quite fit the model created by Smetana. For one thing, Dvořák never shook a fascination with telling stories about the aristocracy and the court, whereas Smetana’s national opera was focused firmly on the peasants in whom he thought the true Czech spirit resided. Dvořák also tended not to choose events from Czech history as foundations for his operas, as was the style in Czech nationalist opera at the time. And perhaps most damningly, he was openly disinterested in politics, and his silence in the national conversation about the nature of Czech opera was not well received by his critics. But despite bad reviews on the topic of his Czechness at home, Dvořák’s personal brand of Czech national music led to a flourishing international career. Brahms took notice of the young composer at this point, and connected him with a German publisher, and later, the National Conservatory of Music in America brought Dvořák to New York for several years in the 1890s to teach American composers how they might develop their own national style of music.

So, embracing Czech nationalism certainly proved to be in the best interest of Dvořák’s career, but I believe his national style was motivated by his personal feelings at least as much as his business savvy. He wrote in a letter to his German publisher, “Still what have we to do with politics—let us be happy that we can give our service in the cause of beautiful art! And nations which possess and represent art will, we hope, never perish, no matter how small they are! Forgive me but I wanted to tell you that an artist also has a native land in which he must have faith and a warm heart.” We can see from this statement a deep love for homeland that motivated Dvořák’s composition, and the distaste for politics that led to his particular brand of nationalism bring underappreciated at home.

The libretto for Rusalka was written by the Czech poet, Jaroslav Kvapil. Kvapil’s text for Rusalka is an amalgamation of a number of European fairytale mythologies about mermaids. His story combines French myths about the Melusine, the German fairytales Undine by Fouqué and Die versunkene Glocke by Hauptmann, and the Danish story of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. In addition to its pan-European sources, Kvapil injected his libretto with the local flavor of Czech fairytales inspired by Karel Jaromír Erben and Božena Nĕmcová. Specifically, the three main non-human characters are all lifted directly from the Czech fairytale tradition. First there is Vodník the Water Sprite, who is traditionally an unfriendly character in myth, infamous for drowning passers-by, but in Rusalka he acts more as a father figure. Ježibaba, also called Baba Yaga, is also typically an antagonist in Slavic mythology, though from time to time she provides guidance to lost souls. In Rusalka, we see both of these faces of Ježibaba. Finally, there is Rusalka. The rusalki are female water creatures in Slavic mythology, known for enticing men with their songs and dances, only for the men to ultimately die in their arms. Rusalki, like mermaids, belong to a large family of female or feminine-coded water creatures that inhabit European folklore and generally exist to lure unsuspecting men to their doom.

Kvapil’s rusalka, named simply Rusalka, is tragically in love with a human man, and gives up her voice so that she might transform into a human and win his love. The heart of Kvapil’s story is in his representation an individual alienated from society. Rusalka’s attempt to integrate into the human world allegorizes the struggle of anyone who has ever felt like an outsider. Her sudden, enchanted voicelessness leaves her unable to connect with the people she desired to be with so dearly.

Dvořák fleshes out Kvapil’s text with the rich tapestry of his score, comprising some of the most beloved music he ever wrote. Central to Dvořák’s musical structure is the dichotomy between the music of the world of nature, and that of the world of humans. The first and third acts bookend the opera with settings in nature, and to bring the dark wood and the moonlit stream to life, Dvořák employs unusual harmonies and highly evocative orchestral colours. The way he blends the sounds of different instruments of the orchestra creates a rich palette of sounds to create this world. Here is an excerpt from the first scene, in which we are introduced to the forest setting and its inhabitants. The orchestra paints the scene for us: the strings winding their way down a long chromatic scale like water trickling over rocks or leave fluttering down from trees. The three wood nymphs enter singing in close harmonies and a homophonic texture—this means that they all sing the same text at the same time, as if with one voice. The characters in Rusalka rarely sing at the same time like this—Dvořák generally prefers to have them take turns, to better imitate human speech—but the wood nymphs are not bound by human speech patterns, and by singing together in this way, their voices take on a more distinctly musical purpose. Listen for how the different families of instruments in the orchestra and the voices of the nymphs all add interesting, colourful sounds to the whole. And when the nymphs stop singing, an offstage chorus supplies the echo of the nymph’s song, which also helps to give dimension to the physical space of the wood around us.

 
 


Dvořák scores the human world, by contrast, with more traditional orchestral sounds and forms. This excerpt from the beginning of the second act introduces us to two of the Prince’s castle staff—a scene of domestic, human life. The music here is metrically very straight and measured. As opposed to the nature music, which called on all of the instrument families in the orchestra to spin its rich acoustic world, the human’s music recalls an older tradition, relying heavily on the strings for its character, with the horns relegated to ornamental hunting calls in the opening. 

            The two worlds of this opera are musically distinct, but there are parallels to be found between the world of nature and the world of humans that Rusalka traverses. This production by David McVicar is built around these parallel worlds. There is a lot to be gained by paying close attention to the second-act ballet. The corps de ballet performs a version of the events of Act I that distresses Rusalka terribly in its uncanny cheerfulness. Then keep an eye out for how McVicar mirrors this ballet with the Wood Nymphs in Act III. The world of nature is fodder for entertainment in the world of humans, but it goes both ways in this production. 

Another really interesting metric for thinking about the music and characters of this opera is class. Both within the world of nature and within the world of humans, we see and hear clear differences in the representation of the different characters based on their position in the class hierarchy. Musically, I think one of the best things to listen for in this respect is declamation in the vocal lines. Characters of high class, especially Rusalka in the natural world and the Prince in the human world, have beautiful, melodic lines to sing, and the rhythms with which they declaim their text are precise and subtle, matching the natural stress of the Czech language. By contrast, the low class characters, especially Ježibaba in the natural world and the Gamekeeper and Turnspit in the human world, tend to sing less interesting melodies and square rhythms that are not so sensitive to the language. Here is an excerpt from Act I, in which Rusalka and Ježibaba are conversing before Ježibaba casts her spell. Rusalka sings first and Ježibaba responds. Listen for the lyric delicacy of Rusalka’s line, in contrast with Ježibaba’s heavy, lumbering approach to both rhythm and melody. The orchestra reinforces this contrast: while Rusalka sings, we hear the flute and oboe play a motif associated with Rusalka’s character, which winds delicately around her vocal line; when Ježibaba sings, the strings pulse along underfoot with heavy rhythmic regularity.






In the theatre, you can pay attention to how class plays out musically in the human world. Listen for how these and other musical techniques flag the Gamekeeper and Turnspit as low class, and the Prince and Princess as high class. These differences are further emphasized onstage in David McVicar’s production. His design makes the gap between the lives of the high and low classes in this opera visible as well as audible.

Although Rusalka breaks many of the rules of Czech nationalist opera, as they were distilled from Smetana’s oeuvre, Dvořák’s orientation toward a Czech musical identity comes through clearly. Although this opera does not set an event from Czech history, its multiple European sources for the story are bound together and made special to a Czech audience through the use of stock characters from Czech fairytales. Dvořák explores the lives of the aristocracy in Rusalka, which was generally frowned upon, but he does so within the context of a musical system that illuminates class across the social spectrum. Finally, the tension Dvořák sets up between the worlds of nature and humankind speaks to one of the most lasting messages of Rusalka. When Rusalka mourns to Ježibaba that she was betrayed among the humans, Ježibaba tells her, “Humans are humans, cast out by the elements, long ago torn from the roots of the earth.” Throughout his life, Dvořák famously espoused his love and respect for nature on numerous occasions. He saw nature as an expression of the divine. This deep connection to nature recalls that myths about the Czech people as essentially natural, simple, and of the earth, and perhaps Rusalka’s popularity has been helped along by this outdated notion of Czechness. But this beautiful musical realization of nature’s power in the world did not simply spring from Dvořák’s soul, Czech or not. Dvořák masterfully crafted an operatic idiom for Rusalka that balances the evocative sounds of his orchestra with lovely, clear melodic lines for his singers. Tonight, McVicar’s production gives us a slightly different picture of nature. His is a nature touched with the eerie darkness of fairytales. And it is a nature that does not seem to be immune from human environmental evils. This particular tension between the worlds of nature and of humans is one well known to us today, and McVicar gives us a way to follow some of our own anxieties about nature and our relationship to it through Dvořák and Kvapil’s story. Despite the incredible tragedy of Rusalka’s experience in this opera at the hands of humanity, Dvořák’s final orchestral postlude returns to the music of nature with a sense of balance, and conciliation. Whatever happens in our lives, he seems to tell us, nature goes on, and in that knowledge there is peace.

 

[i] Klaus Döge, “Dvořák, Antonín (Leopold). Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Accessed 20 September 2019.

[ii] John Holland, “Beyond the Silver Moon: Exploring the Lost Tradition of Dvořák’s Operas Through a Study of Myth, Music, and Nationalism.” PhD diss., York University, 2018.

 

Bibliography

Beveridge, David R. “A Rare Meeting of Minds in Kvapil’s and Dvořák’s Rusalka: The Background, the Artistic Result, and Response by the World of Opera.” In Czech Music around 1900, edited by Lenka Krupková and Jirí Kopecky, 61-80. Studies in Czech Music no. 6. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 2017.

Clapham, John. “The Operas of Antonín Dvořák.” Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association 84th session (1957-58): 55-69.

Döge, Klaus. “Dvořák, Antonín (Leopold). Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Accessed 20 September 2019.

Holland, John. “Beyond the Silver Moon: Exploring the Lost Tradition of Dvořák’s Operas Through a Study of Myth, Music, and Nationalism.” PhD diss., York University, 2018.

Hollander, H. “Dvořák the Czech.” Music & Letters 22, no. 4 (1941): 313-17.

Parker, Roger. “§ V. The 19th Century.” In “Opera (i).” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Accessed 20 September 2019.

Seaman, Gerald. “The Rise of Slavonic Opera.” New Zealand Slavonic Journal 2 (1978): 1-16.

Smaczny, Jan. “Dvořák: The Operas.” In Dvořák and His World, edited by Michael Beckerman, 104-33. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

 




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