Dvořák 1841- 1904

Antonín Dvořák was born in a Bohemian village in what is now the Czech Republic. His Dad owned the local inn and young Dvořák grew up listening to his father singing Czech songs and playing the zither in the bar. (You can hear zithers being played on YouTube.)
Dvořák learnt the violin and joined the village band but, at the age of 11, he was taken away from school to learn to be a butcher – his Dad and Granddad had both been butchers. Dvořák didn't like it very much, so his father let him go back to school in a nearby town, to learn German and music.

Learning German was important, Bohemia was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and German was the official language. Eventually Dvořák could speak German and get work in good orchestras and (very slowly) he got his music composed and played. He became extremely famous and conducted his music throughout the Austrian Empire, Europe, even the USA. But he stayed a simple man. He spotted trains and bred pigeons, and always went home to his cottage in Bohemia, where he could live with his wife, 6 children, and speak Czech.

Aliens

Rusalka is a fairy tale. In spite of the fact that some sensible people say they've seen fairies, very few people actually believe in them, and we don't tell so many stories about them now. But we do tell stories about aliens and androids and robots. And the stories we make up are very like fairy stories.

In Star Trek and Star Wars we meet non humans who can speak and think but can't feel. They're half human. They can be logical like pointy- eared Mr Spock, or baffled by human beings, like Dr Who, but they don't have human hearts. This means they lose all the good bits of being a human – like being able to play, or laugh or fall in love – plus all the bad bits – like being bad tempered or deceitful.

These sorts of stories seem to be asking. What makes us human? Is it worth having difficult emotions and behaving badly if it means we can have feeling hearts and love people? Do we want to be as logical and cold as Mr Spock? We usually end up deciding it's better to be human, however much of a nuisance our emotions are. Rusalka seems to agree. At the end of the opera she realises she can't be human, but she loves the Prince for having a human heart, and forgives him for the evil he's done to her.

Fairy Tales

The libretto (the words) of Rusalka was written by the poet, Jaroslav Kvapil. He used a famous fairy tale for his plot, Hans Andersen's Little Mermaid who, like Rusalka, wants to lose her tail and become a woman. But actually Kvapil didn't have to go further than the nearest stream to find his heroine. Bohemian streams are haunted by rusalki – beautiful young women who lure men into the water and tickle them until they foam at the mouth and die. Bohemians used to float pancakes and flowers in pools and streams to please the rusalki – and keep them away from young men.

German pools are haunted by similar spirits, called nixies, and the Scottish coast is visited by selkies. Selkies are seal maidens who shed their skins to dance on the sea shore and, if a fisherman is quick, he can catch one, hide the sealskin, and marry the girl. But the marriage never lasts: the maiden usually finds where he's hidden her sealskin, puts it on and dives off to sea again – taking the children with her.

Over and over again these stories show that our world and the fairy world don't mix. One man kidnapped by the fairies became dumb, another turned to dust, and fairies that find themselves living with us either pine away, or escape as soon as they can. Yet some fairies keep trying to become human – perhaps because they want a soul. Fairies don't die, but they don't go to Heaven either, and they're anxious about what will happen to them at the end of the world. A Russian rusalka bobbed her head above the waves once to ask the sailors, 'Is it the end of the world yet...?'

Bohemia

Bohemia is bang in the middle of Europe. It's on the way to everywhere, and anybody with a large army has ruled it at some time or other. Bohemia has been run by Romans, Luxembourgers and Russians and, from the 17th century, it was ruled by the Austrian Emperor as part of the enormous Austro-Hungarian Empire. In Dvořák's lifetime, that empire was beginning to break up: the Hungarians wanted their freedom, so did some Bohemians, but Dvořák wasn't desperately interested.

Dvořák liked being Bohemian, but he didn't mind speaking German (if he had to) and thought it was a huge honour when he actually met Emperor Franz Joseph. Even so, he wanted his compositions to be known by their Czech titles and, when his publisher asked him to put the German titles first, he refused. Being a naturally friendly man, he added: 'What have we to do with politics? Let us be grateful that we can dedicate our services solely to art – though an artist must have a Fatherland, which he can love.' Dvořák loved Bohemia.

The Music

Rusalka is an opera that is full of tunes. You know exactly which character is which by the tunes they sing. The Gamekeeper sings folk tunes, the Hunter sings a haunting Forest tune, and Ježibaba sings alarming tunes all of her own.

The orchestra too has its tunes. There's a tune for water, and one for danger, there's a special tune for Rusalka and another for the Forest. You can hear them in the Prelude (the piece of music that starts the show).

The Woods

Most Czech fairy stories are set in woods. This is not surprising as Bohemia is covered with forests and there's wood everywhere – wooden houses, wooden toys, and stacks of wood piled up outside people's front doors. The forests used to be full of people who worked with wood, like woodcutters, and charcoal burners, in fact one of Dvořák's first operas was called The King and the Charcoal Burner.

Dvořák loved walking in the local woods and talking to the peasants. The worst bit about going abroad to work was leaving the Bohemian countryside behind and he totally understood Rusalka's homesickness in the Prince's castle.

One of his sons said that Dvořák always called nature, 'God's Nature' and a great deal of Rusalka is a musical journey through the Bohemian woods – the trees, the pools, and the moonbeams shining through the branches.

Endings

Some operas end happily with everyone getting married, others end unhappily, with a pile of corpses in the middle of the stage – but Rusalka ends with a question mark.

The words tell you that Rusalka is trapped. She can naver be a happy water nymph again, she can't be a woman either and – as she hasn't got a soul – she can't die and go to Heaven like the Prince.

But the music tells you something else. The opera ends with the Forest music – gentle, happy, and apparently offering Rusalka peace and healing.

Teachers' Guide

Teachers' Guide notes are available as downloads:

Intro

Rusalka   is an opera by the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák and was first performed in Prague in March 1901.

The opera is sung in Czech, but don't worry – the English words are shown above the stage, in surtitles, and you'll find it very easy to follow.

This site is about the opera, the story, the characters, and what the music sounds like. You can find this stuff by clicking on the toolbars

The heroine, Rusalka, is sometimes called a nymph or a sprite. Some people think she's a fairy and the singer who played Rusalka in London last year said, 'the trouble is, I'm playing a fish...' Perhaps 'alien' is perhaps the best way to describe her.