On the occasion of the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka, which premieres on February 2, the Czech Centre in New York has prepared a unique exhibition, featuring the original score of the famous opera. It is the first time in history that the rare manuscript has left the territory of the Czech Republic.
The rare manuscript of Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka goes on display on Wednesday, a day ahead of the premiere at the Metropolitan Opera, at the National Bohemian Hall in New York. Along with the score, visitors will get the chance to see other treasures related to the opera, including Renée Fleming’s costumes from the Metropolitan Opera. The exhibition, which was prepared in cooperation with the National Museum in Prague, the Metropolitan Opera and the Dvořák American Heritage Association, is just part of a month-long celebration of Rusalka. Other events include lectures, film screenings, concert and even a special Dvořák menu offered by the Bohemian Spirit Restaurant.
I spoke to Barbara Karpetová, head of the Czech Centre in New York, and I first asked her how the idea for the project arose:
“The idea came very naturally, with the third production of Rusalka at the Metropolitan Opera ever and because of our long-lasting collaboration with the Met it was a very natural step to ask: how are we going to contribute? And there was the idea of a month-long project, a peak of which is the manuscript of Rusalka coming for the first time to the Unites States.
“The manuscript itself in fact never left the country, so it is a very special thing. I guess for both the cast and the Metropolitan opera patrons it is going to be quite a bit of excitement to come over to the Bohemian National Hall and to view the manuscript and all the other events which are going with it hand in hand.”
As you said, the manuscript has left the Czech lands for the first time in history. Has it already arrived at the National Bohemian Hall?
“We were lucky enough to persuade Gabriela Beňačková, who was the first Rusalka at the Metropolitan Opera, to come over and to sing.”
“Yes, it has. It is already at the safe of the Consular General at the diplomatic soil. The transportation was indeed quite special. There was a big involvement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the General Consulate of the Czech Republic in New York. And it seems that today, the conductor of Rusalka, Sir Mark Elder, is coming to see it.”
The manuscript will be shown as part of an exhibition called Rusalka at the National Bohemian Hall. What else will be on display?
“The National Museum of the Czech Republic really brings the treasures of its collections. I would really deeply appreciate to share this with the American audience, because the Dvořák’s American diary is going to be on display and we are going to have the correspondence of Antonín Dvořák and Gustav Mahler about possible world premiere of Rusalka in Vienna, which in fact did not happen in the end.
“We are also going to see and listen to the old records of Rusalka from the old vinyls, so I think for the visitors it is going to be definitely quite a surprise to see all of those unique artefacts.
“There will be as well little part dedicated to the premiere of Rusalka in Prague in the year 1901. This part of the collection belongs to the National Theatre and they were generous enough to bring these as well. So big thanks to all our partners, because it is indeed not easy to bring them overseas.”
“There are in fact three different exhibitions. There is the exhibition focusing on the manuscript, then we have a photographic exhibition of the pictures of villa and the lake Rusalka and there is as well an interesting artistic exhibition of the paintings on the third floor of the Bohemian Hall.
“At the same time we are going to have, as a part of the Grand Opening, a screening of the film Rusalka from the 1970 with Magdalena Vašáryová, who is in fact coming over.
“And then, on February 1, for the Grand Opening, we are going to have a concert at the Ballroom of the National Bohemian Hall and we were lucky enough to persuade Gabriela Beňačková, who was the first Rusalka at the Metropolitan Opera, to come over and to sing.
“Her partners will be Petr Nekoranec, the young Czech opera singer who just won a really impressive competition of Plácido Domingo in Barcelona and an American singer David Leigh, both of them being the members of the Metropolitan opera Young Artists’ Programme.
“So there is something I would call the meeting of the legend and the hope of the Czech Opera under the sign ‘nation for itself’, which we have here on the fourth floor in the ballroom.”
The celebrations of Rusalka will also be marked at the Bohemian Spirit Restaurant at the National Bohemian Hall. What will be on the menu?
“Well, we are marking here Dvořák’s heritage and the idea came from the fact that his father was a butcher and the inn-keeper and he planned for his son to follow his trail. Fortunately for all of the lovers of his music that did not happen.
“In a way, we are in fact going to have all three New York Rusalkas here on board.”
“However, the restaurant chef was very keen on searching what was Dvořák’s favourite food and he found interesting things. He found out that Dvořák in fact was a hearty and he was able to eat about twenty plum dumplings at one spot.
“So we are going to have a typical Czech cuisine inspired by the 19th century and the plum dumplings will be, I guess, for all of the New Yorkers the speciality they are going to try for the first time as well.”
Going back to the performance of Rusalka at the Metropolitan Opera, I guess many Americans connect Rusalka with the legendary performance starring Renée Fleming. Who will be featuring in the lead role this time?
“This time it’s Kristina Opolais. She is the Metropolitan Opera guest and we are all very much looking forward to hearing what will be her interpretation. I should say that Renée Fleming will be in a way with us, because her costumes from the second production will be here at the gallery on display and then she very kindly sent her personal note expressing her special relationship to Rusalka and her Czech heritage.
“So in a way, we are in fact going to have all three New York Rusalkas here on board. Gabriela Beňačková is coming over, Renée Fleming will come and see the manuscript later on and Kristina Opolais is coming for the VIP opening of the cast.”
And I believe this is only the third production of Rusalka in the history of the Metropolitan Opera.
“Yes it is and it is quite surprising, considering the fact that Dvořák really very much connected his life with New York. He was the director of the National Conservatory, he was asked by Jeanette Thurber, the directress, to come over and to contribute to American national music of the 19th century, which he did.
But obviously, for New Yorkers, it’s the symphony From the New World which reminds them of Dvořák.
“Interestingly enough, the Rusalka was premiered at the Metropolitan Opera only in the 1990s, more than ninety years after its premiere in Prague, which is surprising. But this is how the opera works and we are very happy that we are having this very special event, something described by the New York media as ‘opera lovers’ must-see event’.
“It happens after more than one hundred years from the time when he composed the opera, which is believed by some people to be conceived here in the United States. This is something we cannot prove, but there is this mystery about it.”