Discover the history of Dvořák's Rusalka

Rusalka (1901) is Dvořák’s greatest opera – a work that combines a distinctively Czech national flavour in its folk-tunes and dances, with a more universal, late-Romantic musical aesthetic, heavily influenced by Wagner.

Thanks to its fairytale story and lyrical, gorgeous score, the work was immediately popular at home, but has only been part of the international opera repertoire for the past 30 years.


Czech composer Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904) was a leading figure in the late-Romantic movement in music, developing a style of’Czech impressionism’ that viewed and reimagined prevailing trends in music through a nationalist, often folk-infused lens.

Rusalka (1901) is a mature work by a composer in the last years of his life, whose musical career unfolded in quite clear phases. Early more progressive, harmonically experimental tendencies became tempered later by the steadying influence of Brahms and Liszt, and a new seam of Czech nationalism started to emerge.

To understand Rusalka it is necessary to see it in the context of Dvořák’s time in America (1892-95) as director of the National Conservatory of Music, where he as asked to introduce and foster ‘a new, independent art, in short, a national style of music’. This was an idea he brought home with him and set about actively applying to his own nation.

After Dvořák returned from America in 1895 he devoted himself entirely to dramatic and narrative music, producing operas (The Devil and Kate, Rusalka, Armida) and tone poems (The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, The Wood Dove, The Golden Spinning Wheel) – all with a strongly nationalist flavour.

But Dvořák wanted a work with more universal appeal, that would turn nationalism outwards, so it could be appreciated and understood internationally. Rusalka was the work which allowed him to do this. Introduced to a libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil that drew on the same legends Dvořák had been inspired by in his tone poems, Dvořák was immediately captivated, and the opera was written in just 7 months during 1900.

Performance history

Rusalka was premiered on 31 March 1901 in Prague to immediate success. The opera tapped into a potent vein of nationalism and delighted audiences with its lyricism and beauty, and with the new depth it brought to a familiar folk-tale.

Today the opera it remains popular in its homeland – second to Smetana’s The Bartered Bride.

It has taken a long time for Rusalka to enter the regular international repertoire outside the Czech Republic. It wasn’t premiered at the Met until the 1990s, and it’s only in the past 20 years that it has really established a foothold in the UK. It received its UK stage premiere in 1959 at Sadler’s Wells, but it was David Pountney’s 1983 production for ENO that really established it in repertoire.

Rusalka at Glyndebourne
  • Premiered in 2009 and revived in 2011, Melly Still’s Rusalka was Glyndebourne’s first-ever production of Dvořák’s opera and is considered a Glyndebourne classic.
  • It was revived for Festival 2019.
  • The production features some impressive wire work to create the underwater scenes.
  • At once evocative and unsettling, this production collides two contrasting worlds in Rae Smith’s elegant designs. Rusalka’s forest home is a dappled space of sunshine and shadows, full of strange woodland creatures, while the Prince’s court is a world of sleek modernity and sophistication – a world of man.

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