Company Premiere of Dvořák’s ‘Rusalka’ Will Open Pittsburgh Opera’s 84th Season

Four New Resident Artists Will Debut in the Production, Opening Saturday, Sept. 17

By George B. Parous

Beginning Saturday night, September 17, at the Benedum, and running the usual four performances, Pittsburgh Opera will provide the rare opportunity of hearing Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka – an enchanting opera not only new to the company’s roster, but to be sung in its original Czech language (with English supertitles). To date, aside from Resonance Works’ remarkable staging of the work in 2018, only the opera’s famous “Song to the Moon” (“Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém”) has been heard on local concert stages, as far back as January 21, 1916, when the renowned Metropolitan Opera soprano, Emmy Destinn, included it on her Carnegie Music Hall recital program, and as recently as September 16, 2010, when the equally famous Renée Fleming sang it with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at Heinz Hall. Both sopranos recorded the aria, but the first named prima donna, a native of Prague, sang when the recording industry was taking its first, primitive steps, while the second named, Indiana, PA native, can be heard in all of her full, stereophonic glory.

Ms. Fleming for a time made the title role of the three-act opera her own, singing it rather frequently and recording it in its entirety as well. And while Rusalka is by far one of the most successful of Czech operas, after its Prague premiere in 1901, it was rarely heard outside of Czech-speaking countries. It wasn’t heard in London until 1959, and the American premiere didn’t take place until 1975, when it was staged by San Diego Opera. It didn’t reach the Metropolitan Opera until a Vienna production was performed there in 1993, with Gabriela Beňačková in the title role. In more recent years, the melodious, wonderfully orchestrated fairy tale work has enjoyed somewhat of a “revival,” being heard worldwide more often than all of Dvořák’s other operas combined.

Pittsburgh Opera’s premiere cast for the work, which will use a production owned by Minnesota Opera and Boston Lyric Opera, will now include Sara Gartland, soprano, in the title role – her first appearance with the company. Another newcomer will be tenor Jonathan Burton, as the Prince. Bass Hao Jiang Tian will sing the marvelous role of Vodnik, Rusalka’s father. Rounding out the newcomer’s list will be Leah Hawkins, soprano, as the Foreign Princess. Veteran mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti will sing Ježibaba, the witch no storybook forest would be complete without.  Music Director Antony Walker conducts; Kristine McIntyre directs.

Not any less exciting is the fact that we’ll get a first hearing of four of the company’s new Resident Artists on the opening night – Julia Swan Laird, soprano, as the “First Wood Sprite,” Emily Richter, soprano, as the “Second,” Jazmine Olwalia, mezzo-soprano, as the “Third” of the Wood Sprites, and Brandon Bell, baritone, as the Hunter.  

All four recently took the time to share a few thought on their debut production, and the Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist Program.

Jazmine Olwalia

“I had two classmates from graduate school come here last year – Véronique Filloux and Jeremy Harr – ,” Ms. Olwalia said, explaining why she auditioned for Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artist Program. “And they only experienced the best. I got to watch them on Pittsburgh Opera’s Livestreams their first season – at the height of the pandemic-, and I thought ‘Wow, they’re actually getting to do things’!”

Emily Richter

“I wanted stage experience and coaches for as much repertoire as possible to get ready for my career,” Ms. Richter added. “What sets Pittsburgh Opera’s program apart is we get to do lead roles. We are on stage all the time, and at an American young artist program that’s rare. Faculty and colleagues were really recommending this program because Pittsburgh Opera really trains singers for proper careers by putting them on stage.”

Julia Swan Laird

“Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artist training program’s reputation precedes itself,” Julia Swan Laird agreed. “So many great singers come out of this program. Each of your performances as a Resident Artist is meant to teach you something. That’s really valuable for young singers, and is unlike most Resident Artist programs.” “I applied to the Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artist program for a few reasons,” Mr. Bell added, in summing up the reputation of the program. “I really wanted to continue my training and work with coaches who are very well-respected in the industry. I also wanted to get real stage experience. Pittsburgh Opera is a great, well-respected company where I could get both of those things.”

Brandon Bell

“Rehearsals have been great,” Ms. Olwalia said, in answer to a question. “Finding that physicality in our first show is really exciting. Now we have a baseline for how physical we need to be on stage, even for other roles we’ll do later on in the season. I’m excited to hear some really good singing. These are some stellar artists that Pittsburgh Opera has brought together here – it’s exciting just hearing them in rehearsals, I can’t wait to hear them sing full-out for the performances.”

“Learning how to dance and sing at the same time has been really fun for me,” Julia Swan Laird added. “To do that with actual dancers from Attack Theatre, and be a fluid unit with them, is exciting and is a new experience for me. It’s such a visual show. The set is striking. And to have so much color through the projections is exciting to see. We ‘Wood Sprites’ are a nice little palette cleanser between the heavy and dramatic parts of the show, and we bring things back into perspective.” “Just when you think we’re gone, we come back again,” Ms. Olwalia chimed in. “We’re never too far from the drama.”

“I’m looking forward to singing for an audience in Pittsburgh for the first time, said Mr. Bell. “The Hunter accompanies The Prince when he enters the stage, and sings a hunting song that foreshadows what’s going to happen in the opera. If you’re paying attention, it can help shape the story. We keep talking about The Little Mermaid in rehearsals. I think it’s cool for audiences to get to experience stories that they think they know through a new lens, and in a new way. I’m glad that opera gets to be the medium for that.”

“We had to build a shared physical vocabulary with the dancers from Attack Theatre, Ms. Richter added, in conclusion, “and decide what shapes we can hit to be in character. What’s nice as an actor about having lots of movement is that you get to live in a world, and by doing the movement you are being in character, and you’re finding things in a more external way. I find that really freeing, because if I can physically do this, I am in character. I think the Wood Sprites may be a small part of the story, but what we’re doing with that part I doubt has ever been done so elaborately before. We are a fun part of the show.”

It sounds as if the performances will provide fun and beautiful music for all. For complete production details, a full plot synopsis, TICKETS and more, visit Pittsburgh Opera.

Special thanks to Chris Cox, Pittsburgh Opera’s Director of Marketing and Communications

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