Old World fairy tales, like those of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, emerge from deeper and sometimes more turbulent waters than their Disneyfied, American counterparts.
Take “The Little Mermaid,” for example. In the Disney version, Ariel is basically a perky, American teenager who achieves a happily-ever-after life with the prince of her dreams.
In the Hans Christian Andersen tale, the Little Mermaid is a shy, deeply feeling girl on the cusp of womanhood who yearns for Eternal Love and an Immortal Soul. Her ending is not so happily-ever-after.
Czech composer Antonin Dvorak drew on the older, darker version of “The Little Mermaid” to create his fairy tale opera, “Rusalka,” which the Lyric Opera of Kansas City will present for four performances beginning Saturday at the Muriel Kauffman Theatre.
Dvorak is one of the most beloved composers. His New World Symphony consistently shows up near the top of any 100 favorite classical pieces list.
Yet his operas, which make up a considerable portion of his output, are hardly known outside the Czech Republic. This, in fact, will be the first time the Lyric Opera has ever performed “Rusalka” or any other Czech opera.
But Eric Simonson, the director of the Lyric Opera’s production of “Rusalka,” said the opera is starting to establish itself in Europe and America as a part of the standard repertoire.
“I read somewhere recently that the number of times ‘Rusalka’ has been produced from 2008 to 2015 is more than all of Dvorak’s other operas combined in the history of presenting operas,” Simonson said. “There was a prejudice that Czech opera just wasn’t up to snuff, it was sort of a regional thing.
“Because there have been some productions going around, especially in Europe, people are starting to look at the piece in a serious way. They’re realizing, ‘You know what, this is as good or better than a lot of the operas that we have put in our repertory.’ ”
Indeed, “Rusalka” is a masterpiece. In many ways it compares to the works of Richard Wagner. “Rusalka” is not only filled with lush, romantic music, including the gorgeous aria “Song to the Moon,” it also deals with big themes and timeless archetypes like the Ring Cycle or “Lohengrin” and, like them, lends itself to many interpretations.
“Dvorak was a huge fan of Wagner, so you hear these leitmotifs,” said Ellie Dehn, who sings the role of Rusalka. “It’s not as heavy to sing, but when Rusalka comes on, there’s her music. She sings these leitmotifs that come back over and over and over throughout the course of the opera.
“They’re interpolated sometimes and they’re woven into the music when other singers sing about her. So you can definitely hear quotes of Wagner. You can hear quotes of (Ludwig Van) Beethoven, you can hear some quotes of (Wolfgang Amadeus) Mozart, but it’s interesting how they all sort of weave together.”
Dehn has never sung “Rusalka” or any other Czech opera. She has mainly specialized in Mozart, but she jumped at the opportunity to sing the role as soon as the Lyric offered it to her.
“The first time I heard it I thought the music was sublime and great,” she said. “I feel so fortunate to do this role because they don’t do it much in the States. Rusalka is a dreamer. She’s heard about this other world, where humans have souls, and she wants a soul and she wants to love and to know what all of that feels like. She’s willing to give up everything, all of her sisters, her family, her father to try to search for this thing called love, which she thinks she’s found in the prince.”
This is the stuff of classic fairy tales, and, according to Dehn, the Lyric’s production captures this fairy tale aspect.
“We’re definitely still keeping that fairy tale element, especially the scenes in the water and in the forest,” she said. “We’re keeping true to that. Rusalka doesn’t have fins, per se, but the way the costumes are, it’s clear that she doesn’t have legs and she does have legs later (when she becomes human). It’s very beautiful.”
Simonson, who helped create this production in 2008, says he didn’t want something “high concept” that was going to distance the audience from the story. He wanted to capture the otherworldly nature of the story while still making the characters relatable.
“I asked Wendall Harrington, a really wonderful media designer, to create these worlds with a subdued animation as a backdrop, where we can go into the undersea world and the plant world where you have sprites and into the scary atmosphere of a witch’s cove,” he said.
“In the second act we created a really horrible human society where there’s all the usual horrible, evil sins of greed and jealousy. A sterile concrete, manmade world that is the opposite of the natural world, which is balanced and where everyone is healthy and everyone knows what they’re doing and knows their place and lives in harmony.”
It may not be Disney, but “Rusalka” offers deeper pleasures and more meaningful satisfaction. It’s a product of the Romantic era, when happy endings may have been hard to come by, but profound truths were revealed.
“I don’t think anyone seeing ‘Rusalka’ is going to come away at the end of the opera thinking wow, that was just like Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid,’ or that was even close to ‘The Little Mermaid,’ ” Simonson said. “I hope that what they’ll feel at the end of the opera is how terrible that these two people who love each other in such an eternal way suffer such tragedy, and it’s going to make them feel, I hope, something about how love works in the real world and maybe in their own lives.”
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 11 and 13 and 2 p.m. Nov. 15. Muriel Kauffman Theatre, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $39-$169 with special discounts available for children. 816-471-7344 or www.kcopera.org.
William Baker Festival Singers
The William Baker Festival Singers will open its 18th season Sunday with a concert featuring music from Renaissance polyphony to Irish folk songs. William Baker, the founder, conductor and namesake of the Festival Singers, has chosen a program that shows his choir’s versatility.
On the bill from the Renaissance are works by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck and Gregorio Allegri. The choir also will perform music by three popular contemporary choral composers, Stephen Paulus, Rene Clausen and Eric Whitacre. Included are a selection of African-American spirituals, something of a Baker specialty.
2 p.m. Sunday. Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral, 415 W. 13th St. $5-$20. At the door or www.FestivalSingers.org.
“Opera Without Words”
The Heritage Philharmonic is a gem among Kansas City’s community orchestras and it’s led by the talented Jim Murray.
To top it off, their concerts are free. If you’re on a tight budget, the Heritage Philharmonic makes it possible to enjoy an evening of truly outstanding live classical music with money left in your pocket for a nice dinner afterward.
Heritage will perform a program called “Opera Without Words” on Saturday, featuring works by Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and many others. It should be perfect for anyone who enjoys beautiful melodies but especially those who love opera tunes but not the singing.
7:30 p.m. Saturday. Blue Springs High School Performing Arts Center, 2000 N.W. Ashton Drive, Blue Springs. Free. www.heritagephilharmonic.org.
Japan has tremendous respect for Western classical music, but it has a rich classical tradition of its own.
The Conservatory Artist Series of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music and Dance will present the Arianna String Quartet in a concert Tuesday that explores music from the East and West.
James Nyoraku Schlefer, a shakuhachi grand master; koto player Yumi Kurosawa and shamisen player Yoko Reikano Kimura will join the quartet for two works with a Japanese aesthetic, Fujinaga Kengyō’s “Yachiyo Jishi” and Schlefer’s “Dream Corner.” Between those works, the quartet will perform the String Quartet in C Minor by Claude Debussy, a composer who greatly admired Asian art and music.
7:30 p.m. Tuesday. White Recital Hall, 4949 Cherry St. $10-$25. 816-235-6222 or tinyurl.com/oshk6xa.
Kansas City Chamber Orchestra
William Shakespeare was a well-known music lover and has inspired composers over the ages.
The Kansas City Chamber Orchestra conducted by Bruce Sorrell will present a sampling of this repertoire with the program “Shakespeare as Muse” on Friday at Old Mission United Methodist Church.
One of Kansas City’s favorite actors, Robert Gibby Brand, will read the Bard’s poetry and the Chamber Orchestra will perform Shakespearean works by composers William Walton, Henry Purcell, and Gerald Finzi. A highlight of the program is a vocalise by Jean Belmont Ford sung by soprano Sarah Tannehill Anderson, for whom Belmont wrote the work.
8 p.m. Friday. Old Mission United Methodist Church, 5519 State Park Road, Fairway. $10-$30. 816-235-6222 or tinyurl.com/ohf7xzo.
Reach freelance classical music writer Patrick Neas at email@example.com.