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Inside the world of Rusalka

Josh Borths – October 19, 2016

When I was a little kid, Hans Christen Andersen’s The Little Mermaid captured my imagination. I knew the now classic Disney film, but shortly after seeing the movie for the first time, I received a beautiful storybook filled with Andersen’s original tales. Inside were shocking stories and intense illustrations that did not end the same way as the Disney retelling. Inside Andersen’s world, the princess didn’t achieve a happily ever after. Dreams didn’t become reality, and sacrifices could be meaningless. 

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that growing up requires making choices. We all make choices about careers, love, priorities, and identity. Many of these choices are irreversible. So, what happens when they don’t work out? What happens when we take risks that lead to disaster? While grappling with these important questions, I’ve realized that both versions of The Little Mermaid are valid. Sometimes everything works out, and the right choice was made. Sometimes they don’t. That’s real life, and that is the murky, fairytale world of Rusalka.


In Rusalka, based on the original Andersen story as well as the Czech legends of Karel Jaromír Erben, a water nymph transforms not only from a sprite to a human, but from a child to an adult. She is faced with consequences and must confront a world that denies her a happy ending. 

When I turn on the news, or check Facebook, I see that our world is full of Rusalki. I’m confronted with a world filled with love, hope and innocence that lead to mistakes, loss, and regret. And due to the compassionate musical language of Antonín Dvořák, this reality is given a voice. 

When deciding how to present this tale to audiences at Arizona Opera, I decided to look at the story from the perspective of Rusalka herself. At the start of the opera, it is her reality that is three-dimensional and the human world that is made of shadow. It is her longing for a portal to another world that motivates every choice and leads to irrevocable rifts.

The musical score and libretto to the opera is as complicated as the story itself. It has one foot in 19th century Romanticism, and one foot in 20th century Symbolism. For me, I wanted to find a period and visual style that would capture these two worlds, as well as represent the choices facing Rusalka. We eventually settled on the world of the Habsburg Empire in the late 1800s—a world known by Andersen, Dvořák, and Erben, and just as Rusalka deals with the consequences of growing up from a girl to a woman, Europe at this time began to confront its own loss of innocence as it faced a future that would lead to world wars.

Rusalka is a beautiful, sensual, and meaningful work that—while being a fairytale—deals with reality. It forces us to confront our choices and ask the question: what happens when our dreams turn sour?

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