Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What bothered them? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? What would they have done differently? Iis discussion will offer students an opportunity to review the notes on their My Highs and Lows sheet, as well as their thoughts about this Met production—in short, to see themselves as Rusalka experts.
For all its fairy-tale resonance, Rusalka is not a traditional Czech story. Jaroslav Kvapil transplanted elements of Slavic legend, including the “vodník,” or water sprite, and the “rusalka”, or water nymph, into narratives borrowed from two 19th-century authors: the German Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué and the Danish Hans Christian Andersen (whose famous version of the story also inspired the Disney film and musical The Little Mermaid).
The story didn’t begin with Fouqué or Andersen. Similar tales had been told for many years in many different parts of the world. But Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s novella, Ondine, was particularly influential and widely read throughout the 19th century. Iough it differs in many ways from Kvapil’s libretto, several elements in Rusalka come directly from de la Motte Fouqué’s text. Some of those similarities and differences include:
- While the opera's Rusalka must make a deal with a witch to leave the lake she has grown up in, Ondine has been raised on land by a human fisherman and hi wife.
- In the opera, the Prince briefly flirts with the Foreign Princess; in the novella, the Ondine's Knight actually weds another woman.
- In both Rusalka and Ondine, the tragic heroine is rejected by her lover and must retreat to her watery home, only to realize she no longer truly belongs there.
- In both versions, the lovers' fatal kiss provides the stories' climax.
Andersen’s version, published in 1837, will probably be more familiar to your students, so it will provide the basis of this activity (Anderson’s full text can be found at tiny.cc/lmermaid). Your students are likely to find the differences between Andersen’s version and Kvapil’s quite interesting, beyond the move from saltwater to fresh. These include:
- Andersen's mermaid can dance quite beautifully, but only with great pain
- Andersen's mermaid is encouraged to kill the prince by her own sisters
- The princess who marries Andersen's prince loves the mermaid like a sister and misses her when she dives into the sea
- Andersen's mermaid doesn't end up a demon, but a virtuous "daughter of the air"
- Students familiar with the Disney film will recognize even more differences among the three versions of the story.
Though it’s impossible to provide decisive explanations for the differences among the 1837 Danish version, the 1901 Czech version, and the 1989 U.S. versions of the Little Mermaid story, hypothesizing such explanations is part of the work of a literary critic. Students may enjoy trying their hand at such hypothesis. They can
- specify different, but corresponding plot points
- consider the implications of the different choices
- conduct research online and in the library to help them understand why a particular creator, living in a particular society, at a particular time, may have made such a choice.
The variations in the Little Mermaid story might also inspire students to imagine their own contemporary versions of the story:
- What rings true in all or any of the versions?
- What aspects of the story would they change?
- How could the story be made more suitable for today's audiences?
- How would those changes affect the plot? The character relationships? The overall meaning, whether surface or allegorical?
- In the spirit of the Classroom Activity above, how might the story be intentionally recast as an allegory for an issue of contemporary concern, such as climate change or Internet ethics?