The most popular and successful Czech opera, Rusalka, tells the story of an immortal water nymph from Slavic Mythology who falls in love with a prince and yearns to become human. It is a sad and touching fairy tale which contains many similarities to Undine by German poet Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué and The Little Mermaid by Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson.
The opera Rusalka is based on the fairy tales of the folklorist Karel Jaromír Erben and the Czech writer, Božena Němcová. The opera was composed by the famous Czech composer, Antonín Dvořák and the libretto was written by the Czech poet and librettist, Jaroslav Kvapil, who first had the idea to write the libretto while on the island of Bornholm. In his memoirs he wrote:
“The fairy tales of Erben and Bozena Nemcova, which I was studying at the time, accompanied me to the sea. And there, merging together, were my impressions from Andersen, which I loved as a child, and the rhythms of Erben’s ballads, the most beautiful of Czech ballads…”
The composition of the libretto began before the poet ever met Dvořák. Kvapil began working on the libretto for Rusalka before he had any contact with the composer. In fact, at the time when he wrote the libretto, he was uncertain who would compose it. In 1911, in an article from Hudební Revue (English: Musical Review), Kvapil says:
“I wrote it not knowing who the recipient would be.”
It was not until 1899, when the libretto was complete, that Kvapil began searching for composers to set his text. He offered it to a few other composer before Dvořák, none of whom showed any interest in the text. During this time, Dvořák was looking for a new project and issued an advertisement through the National Theatre. It was not until Kvapil saw the advertisement that Dvořák was looking for a libretto that he offered it to Dvořák through the theatre’s director.
Dvořák composed the opera quite quickly. The composition of the first draft began on April 22, 1900 and was completed by the end of November. Dvořák had always been interested in the stories of Erben and was very enthusiastic about the work. On June 12, 1900, he wrote to his friend Alois Gobl about his excitement:
“I am now working on a new opera and I’ve already completed the first act and I also intend to finish the instrumentation this month. My new opera is once more a fairy tale, with words by Jarosl. Kvapil; it is called “Rusalka”. I am filled with enthusiasm and joy that my work is going so well.”
The libretto by Kvapil was inspired by various literary works and yet the poetic beauty of the libretto is quite distinct and undoubtedly served to inspire Dvořák during his composition of the opera.
The music for the opera is at once both tender and dramatic. Dvořák manages to evoke images of moonlight reflecting on the black lake and leaves rustling in the dark forest. The musical score is hauntingly beautiful and mysterious and, at times, even sinister. However, it is always splendid.
The famous aria from Act I of the opera, entitled “Song to the Moon” (Czech: “Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém”) is sung by the title character, Rusalka, and is considered the most popular excerpt from the opera. In “Song to the Moon” Rusalka asks the moon to tell the prince of her love for him.
“Song to the Moon” Czech Lyrics
Mesiku na nebi hlubokem
Svetlo tve daleko vidi,
Po svete bloudis sirokem,
Divas se v pribytky lidi.
Mesicku, postuj chvili
reckni mi, kde je muj mily
Rekni mu, stribmy mesicku,
me ze jej objima rame,
aby si alespon chvilicku
vzpomenul ve sneni na mne.
Zasvet mu do daleka,
rekni mu, rekni m kdo tu nan ceka!
O mneli duse lidska sni,
at’se tou vzpominkou vzbudi!
Mesicku, nezhasni, nezhasni!
“Song to the Moon” English Translation
Moon, high and deep in the sky
Your light sees far,
You travel around the wide world,
and see into people’s homes.
Moon, stand still a while
and tell me where is my dear.
Tell him, silvery moon,
that I am embracing him.
For at least momentarily
let him recall of dreaming of me.
Illuminate him far away,
and tell him, tell him who is waiting for him!
If his human soul is, in fact, dreaming of me,
may the memory awaken him!
Moonlight, don’t disappear, disappear!
From 1857 to 1859, while he was still a student, Dvořák played the viola in the pit orchestra of the Estates Theatre (Czech: Stavovské divadlo) in Prague.
A few years later, in 1862, he began to play at the Provisional Theatre (Czech: Prozatímní divadlo), which is now known as the National Theatre (Czech: Národní divadlo). He continued to play at the Provisional Theatre until 1871. During his time playing the viola at these two famous theatre’s, Dvořák was exposed to various operas by Wagner, Mozart, and Smetana. Perhaps these years playing in the theatre would later serve as inspiration for Dvořák when he began composing his own operas.
Dvořák composed Rusalka when he was 60 years old, just three years before he died. It was the ninth opera he composed in his lifetime.
In the spring of 1901, Rusalka premiered at the National Theatre in Prague where Dvořák had once played as a young musician many years prior.
Needless to say, it was a great success.