On March 31, 1901, the premiere of the opera Rusalka, one of the most famous and successful Czech operas by Antonin Dvořák, was held in Prague’s National Theatre.
The ninth opera composed by celebrated Czech composer Antonin Dvořák, Rusalka has a Czech libretto written by poet Jaroslav Kvapil based on the fairy tales of Bozena Nemcova and Karel Jaromir Erben.
After finishing the libretto in 1899, Kvapil offered the piece to several composers, all of whom turned down the project. He eventually offered it to Dvořák after seeing an advertisement published by the latter through the National Theatre, declaring he was looking for a new project.
Coming right after his four symphonic poems inspired by Erben’s folk-ballads, Rusalka was composed very quickly, between April and November 1900. “I am filled with enthusiasm and joy that my work is going so well,” he wrote to his friend Alois Gobl in June 1900 regarding his ongoing work on Rusalka.
In Slavic folklore and mythology, a rusalka is a female entity and water sprite usually inhabiting lakes or rivers – a close equivalent to the Naiads in Greek mythology.
Divided in three acts, the plot of Rusalka itself contains a number of similarities with and is inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s world-famous tale The Little Mermaid and Friererich Fouque’s novel Undine, telling the story of a water nymph who, after falling in love with a prince, is prepared to do anything to take a human form.
The premiere of the opera, held in Prague on March 31, 1901, a few months before the composer’s 60th birthday, starred the Czech National Theatre’s leading soprano Růžena Maturová in the title role and was immediately a resounding success throughout the Czech lands, then under Austrian rule. Dvořák would die only three years later, in 1904. Along with Bedřich Smetana and Leoš Janáček, he is still one of the most famous and celebrated Czech composers in history.
One of the most beloved pieces of the Czech repertoire, Rusalka is to this day performed regularly throughout the year in Prague and other Czech theatres, as well as worldwide. The Song to the Moon aria from the first act, where Rusalka asks the moon to intervene in her favour and tell the prince she loves him, is arguably its most famous excerpt.
Only four years ago, in 2017, an original production of Rusalka at the Metropolitan Opera of New York made a splash all across the United States – a country where Dvořák lived for many years and composed a number of his most significant pieces, including the acclaimed Ninth Symphony (From the New World).
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.
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