Soprano Ana María Martínez, who will sing the title role in Lyric's 2013-14 production of Dvořák's Rusalka, answers Lyric Opera dramaturg Roger Pines's questions about the character.
RP:You sang your first Rusalka at Glyndebourne in 2009, and later reprised the role in Munich. Had it occurred to you to sing this opera before it was first offered to you?
AMM: Not right away. I always thought it was a bit too full, more for a lirico spinto. You have to have the vocal range to do it. There are scenes that are actually bigger than Madama Butterfly vocally – the finale with the Prince, for example. The role itself was always in my mind as very beautiful, something one would love to portray onstage. I’ve always erred on the conservative side regarding what I sing. I think it’s served me well to wait until later in my career before singing Rusalka.
RP: Had you ever seen the opera onstage before, or listened to anything in the piece besides Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon”?
AMM: I’d listened to it, but not with the ears of learning it. I knew parts of it, and when I was studying at Juilliard we listened to portions of it. But you listen differently when you’re going to learn a role. I’ll put it to you this way: When you’re in the passenger’s seat of a car and you’re looking at the scenery—“Isn’t this nice?” But if it’s a route that’s new to you, unless you’ve actually driven there and have the perspective of the driver, you look at it differently.
RP: How did you respond to Rusalka as a whole the first time you saw or heard it?
AMM: I felt inspired but also emotionally exhausted by Rusalka’s journey. In a good way—I have to emphasize that! It’s a cathartic experience that you have when you listen to this piece. I also felt, “Wow, I really, really hope I can do this and do it well.” When I was learning it, it felt like such a tremendous and wonderful undertaking, but wow! What a mountain to climb, on every level.
As with all roles, vocally you eventually figure out what you need to do in this piece. I was lucky to have seven weeks of rehearsal when I was doing it for the first time at Glyndebourne, but the work there quickly shifted into the emotional mountain I needed to climb. I wanted to try as honestly as I could to walk in Rusalka’s shoes. The journey she undertakes is really tremendous.
RP:What do you consider this opera’s greatest strengths?
AMM: Several things come to mind. Beginning with the very first notes in the orchestra, Dvořák is able to create an incredible atmosphere—it’s quickly established and it remains present throughout. You’re in another world, and it’s an enchanted world. I think you can tell when you’re on land and when you’re in the water—you hear it in the music! Everything is stated so clearly. The principals and supporting characters all have their own color, their own mood, their own story to tell.
Of course, the story has to do with love, but it has to do with the journey toward becoming. Rusalka wants to be human and, more than anything, she wants a soul – she’ll sacrifice whatever it takes to have that. The core of this piece is that quest, that desire, that journey. Even though I think I’m a pretty courageous, gutsy lady, Rusalka has far more courage than I could ever have. To step in her shoes makes me grow. My hope is that all of us – the entire cast, the company, and the audience – will take this journey with Rusalka.
So there’s the story itself, but then there’s the emotional journey that’s supported through the music – and it’s heartbreaking. There’s the scene where she’s pleading with Ježibaba to make her human. She’s trying everything, and Ježibaba is so cold! “Let’s see if you’ve got what it takes, little girl – do you know what you’re asking?” That is a phenomenal scene.
For me, what is the most touching and I think will have the audience sobbing is Rusalka’s duet with the Prince in the last act. Dvořák could have written it fortissimo – Rusalka could have yelled at the Prince, “Why did you lie to me? Why did you say you loved me when you didn’t? Why?”—but it’s with the quietest of dynamics, the quietest orchestration. And then there is the very end of the opera, when it’s clear that Rusalka is destined for the worst type of existence – she’s neither dead nor alive. Anyone would wish death over what she has to endure for eternity – but this is expressed in such a quiet way.
RP: The emotional content of what Rusalka expresses in the final scene is actually pretty intense and complex.
AMM: We see in that scene that Rusalka doesn’t understand human passion. You feel she desires the Prince, but she’s incapable of completing that part of her woman-ness. It’s like when a girl is 13 or 14, she has a crush and dreams of being in the arms of the boy she has a crush on. She fantasizes, but when she’s in the moment, it’s “What do I do here?” Talk to anyone who had their first experiences with romance when they were quite young – it usually wasn’t great! They fantasize, but then it’s scary and they don’t know what to do. Perhaps if Rusalka were given the chance to go a little slower, she could warm up to that. But she’s doing this for the first time, and she’s out of her element, away from her whole support system – she’s been ostracized. Obviously she’s intelligent, her mind is constantly going, and the way she puts thoughts into words is tremendous, but she’s probably just freaking out! This also makes me think that the Prince is impatient and wants passion from her right away.
RP: Beyond what you’ve just discussed, what matters the most to you in your characterization?
AMM: When I think of Rusalka I just think of absolute, pure love, as much as we can fathom what that is. Love comes in all sorts of forms, and sometimes we have ulterior motives when we feel we love someone or want something. But if we were to think of the purest form of love in all its capacities, that to me is Rusalka. That is difficult to physicalize onstage. She loves life and she loves the concept of a soul, which also implies tremendous spirituality. She loves all that is living, vibrant, creative, and inspiring. She’s idealistic in that way. I think of her as this bright light, and profound. Here’s someone who is just all heart, with this being around it. That is her truth, where she gets her strength, her courage, her passion. We actually see her journey from pre-adolescence to adolescence to womanhood, always maintaining her love. She becomes a full woman in the confrontation with the Prince at the end. She reaches womanhood there, and in her ability to forgive the Prince at the end. That to me is love in all its facets, with the risk that comes with it. If you think of the definition of courage as being terrified by going through with it anyway, she was so sure she’d have nothing to lose in this venture, and she was losing from the get-go. Still, she remains steadfast. The witch gives her an out: “If you make sure that that man’s blood is shed, the curse will be lifted and you can go back to your life,” and Rusalka says, “Rather than cause him such harm, I welcome that terrible sentence you’ll have me undergo for the rest of my existence” – that existence being, in effect, living death. She takes responsibility for her choices, and always – even in such pain – she stands for love.
RP:What’s the toughest place emotionally in the role?
AMM: What really gets me is when her sister water-nymphs come back in Act Three. Their words rip her to shreds. There are performances when I’m sobbing at the end of that. It’s so powerful – that’s Rusalka’s rock-bottom.
RP:And what’s the most challenging portion of singing this music?
AMM: The challenge comes when you’ve been quiet for so long. Remember, in Act Two, until the scene with her father, she’s unable to speak. He emerges, and suddenly she’s singing the aria to him. That’s the tough one vocally – it’s quite dramatic. Vocally speaking you have to be very grounded and not let the rage of the moment get in the way.
RP:This opera has one of the greatest final scenes in the entire operatic repertoire. What makes it so exceptional?
AMM: Musically speaking it’s paced to show the journey of emotions in that confrontation between Rusalka and the Prince. She believes he lied to her, and now she’s genuinely asking, “Why did you do this? I really want to know.” In terms of the emotions, what makes it so extraordinary is that you’re able to have full closure in that dialogue. You can also express ultimate vulnerability and ultimate sacrifice. How many of us have had tremendous life-changing relationships that have ended, in which we’ve been betrayed and yet have not had the opportunity for that closure and that confrontation and honoring what there was at one point? In Rusalka this is depicted in the most human, honest, and fulfilling way. It really does show that type of need, which all of us have. On top of that, you add how it’s set musically – and the ultimate sacrifice that takes place. After he’s sacrificed himself, even though she didn’t want him to, she’s able to bless him. The whole scene is tremendous.
RP:How does it feel to play an otherworldly creature?
AMM: First of all, her inner world is so rich in many ways, and I can identify with her dream-like thinking. I was very much like that as a child and teenager—I would escape a lot from the stresses of life. My parents are wonderful people, but they divorced when I was young. I was an only child, uprooted from Puerto Rico to New York City. Like many kids who undergo something like that, I’d just retreat to an inner fantasy world quite often. Rusalka’s thinking is quite infantile in that way, but we see how real she actually is when, in Act Two, she’s forced to enter a harsh human reality. How cruel that is! We’ve seen the cruelty of her father ostracizing her, saying, “Your only hope is to ask Jezibaba to make you human, and if you do that, good luck, I’m through with you, you’re banned forever from our world and will lose everything.” And she did, so she experiences abandonment and then cruelty, and has to fend for herself. She has to grow up pretty fast! Even though she’s from another world, she actually ends up being more of this world than anyone could be. Someone who comes from a different culture going into a new culture, another country, another way of thinking, can go through the same thing. So I think we can identify with her. I can’t just “put on” an emotion like wearing a jacket; I have to find my resources of personal experience and knowledge in order to portray her in an honest way.
As far as movement onstage in the role is concerned, I do have ballet training, although when I began rehearsing this role, I hadn't danced in a while. I looked in the mirror and said, “OK, I’ve got some work to do.” I changed my eating habits that day! During those seven weeks of rehearsal I was working with the dancers on a daily basis for at least an hour, while getting reacquainted with my body from a dancer’s perspective. By the time we opened, I was physically aware in a way I hadn’t been for a long time. In the scenes where Rusalka is silent, you need your body language more than ever. That’s where the tools of dancer training come in so handy. You really need to physicalize what she’s feeling. Since that production I’ve stayed in good shape – I’m a runner now, and I’m doing that to be able to add more physicality to my roles. That’s the demand of reality that we all face in the business now. I don’t know what David McVicar will have us do in his concept, but I’m prepared! I’m keeping up the running and working out and strengthening exercises so I can lend my body to what is necessary for the production.
RP: At Lyric you’ll reprise your stage partnership with Brandon Jovanovich, who sang the Prince opposite you at Glyndebourne. The two of you were able to achieve a marvelous chemistry in your scenes together.
AMM: Brandon has so many wonderful qualities as a human being and as an artist. In any role he comes first and foremost from his acting background, and he’s a very honest interpreter. When he comes into a rehearsal and onto the stage, he leaves Brandon at the door, and by the time he starts he is that character. He presents the energy and the thought, the emotions, and the body language completely. Mostly, though, he does it through his eyes -- they lock in with yours. I feel that he’s telling me volumes through his eyes, but he’s also respectful that this is our craft. I’m seeing the eyes of the Prince, which invites me to do the same with my character. A space is created in which you can give with complete abandon, and the two characters have this journey together. We both understand that we’re there to serve the story and the music. If we do our part with complete abandon, it will be that much richer for the audience. Brandon isn’t distracted – you know, “Here comes this vocal phrase,” or “I have to go over here and grab this.” Plus he’s also very caring, very attuned to what you need onstage, and I tend to be that way as well. It’s just the right fit as far as establishing that safety and trust – we’re always discovering something new. My background is also first in drama, in acting, so we know that about each other, so we can just go there. He’s inviting you to take that journey, and it’s a joy to do that with him.
RP: You’re also renewing your collaboration with Sir Andrew Davis, which was so rewarding in Lyric Opera’s production of Faust.
AMM: He’s so gifted, so musical, and so knowledgeable. I felt really taken care of throughout that entire experience. He’s so warm, gentle, and also at the same time beautifully demanding in what we’re there to do. He loves what he’s doing. When we’ve talked about Rusalka and how excited we are to do it, I’ve seen that joy in him. He’s also watching out for us at every moment. Sometimes these pieces have tremendous demands on us, but I feel he’s very attuned to what our needs are. In addition to his tremendous musical excellence and rich knowledge, he’s also a very caring conductor. I’m really looking forward to this experience with him.
RP:This will be your first time working with Sir David McVicar.
AMM: I’ve heard that he has a tremendously creative mind and wants to try all sorts of things. Very much an out-of-the-box thinker. I met him at Glyndebourne, and when he saw our production of Rusalka there he said to me, “Oh, good—you want to play. You’ll try anything!” I’m excited about that kind of energy, and the desire to try all sorts of things to get the story told.
RP:What do you want the audience to come away with after seeing and hearing Rusalka in the theater?
AMM: I want them to relish the experience of having entered a world of magic and mystery – a world that is so instantly and warmly defined. Through Dvořák’s music and his storytelling, you feel it’s OK to have this fantasy, OK to enter this scary but marvelous world. You never leave it until the piece is over. The beauty of it, the vulnerability, the passion, the rawness – everything is there. It’s glorious and spiritual and loving all in one.
Pictured above: Soprano Ana María Martínez as Rusalka in Glyndebourne's 2009 production. (Photo: Bill Cooper, Glyndebourne Productions Ltd.)