Rusalka in Antwerp

The two largest cities in Flanders, Antwerp and Ghent, had separate opera companies until 1981, when the two companies were merged to form the Flemish Opera — now known as Opera Ballet Vlaanderen (obv) to emphasize the importance of ballet as well as opera in their programming. The combined company presents the same productions in the historic opera houses in both cities.

The Antwerp opera house in 2012

Since 2012, when I took this photo, the square in front of the Antwerp opera house has been completely rearranged to make more space for people and less for cars. The building on the right is part of the base of the Antwerp Tower, a high-rise building from the 1970s which is currently being reconstructed for residential use.

Front doors of the opera house in Antwerp

Operas have been performed in Antwerp in various venues since 1660. In 1834 the Théâtre Royal was opened, performing mainly French operas along with Italian operas in French translation.

In 1899 it was decided that Antwerp needed a Flemish Opera to outshine the French one — just as the Czech National Theater in Prague was intended to be grander and more resplendent and more modern than the old German theater (now the Estates Theater), which had been built a century earlier.

The old Théâtre Royal in Antwerp still exists, by the way, but it is now called the Bourlaschouwburg and is used for spoken drama, mainly in Dutch.

Looking down at the foyer, where champagne and oysters are for sale

The current opera house in Antwerp was inaugurated in 1907. In 2004 it closed for the first time for a thorough renovation, which took three years. A side stage was built, new offices and working spaces were constructed and the technical equipment was modernized. The building re-opened in 2007 just in time for its one hundredth anniversary. After renovation, the auditorium now seats 1081 people — fewer than before, since modern audiences and safety standards demand more space per person.

Orchestra pit and seating in the Antwerp opera house

In December 2019 in the Antwerp opera house I attended a brilliant opera-and-ballet performance of Rusalka by the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904).

obv program booklet for Rusalka

The word ‘Rusalka’ in Czech (Ondine in French, Undine in German) designates a mythological water spirit, sort of like a fresh-water mermaid. The program booklet, which is mainly in Dutch but also includes a synopsis and one major article in English translation, traces the history of these female water spirits from the ancient Greeks (nereids and sirens) through the Middle Ages and down to the 19th century writings of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué and Hans Christian Andersen. It also mentions a Slavic folk tradition in which the ‘Rusalki’ were thought to be “girls who had drowned themselves or killed their illegitimate and therefore unbaptized children by drowning.” Based on this tradition, the Antwerp production of Rusalka begins with pantomime scene, during the overture, in which a desperate couple drowns an illegitimate baby girl.

The Norwegian stage director Alan Lucien Øyen, who is also the choreographer, explains in the program booklet that in his production “various characters are played by both a singer and a dancer, who share the role. This offers me a way of expressing the libretto very directly as well as revealing the underlying emotions and drives of the characters.”

Balconies in the Antwerp opera house

Generally the singer and dancer of a character appear together, but in the case of the Prince, the dancer appears first, to illustrate the scene where Rusalka tells her father about the human prince who is in love with her and comes and lies in her arms in the pond.

Because the stage director and the choreographer are one and the same person, the balance between the singing and the dancing is unusually even, and it seldom seems that one is more important than the other. Two exceptions to this are during Rusalka’s two big arias in the first and third acts, when her dancer stops dancing for a few minutes and just listens while sitting on a rock and gazing (appropriately) at the moon.

Applause after Rusalka in Antwerp

This was quite an international production, with a young female orchestra conductor from Latvia (Giedrė Šlekytė), an Austrian chorus director, a Norwegian stage director and choreographer, singers from Belgium, Ukraine, the Netherlands, South Africa, Spain and Georgia (the country, not the state), as well as dancers from the United States, Brazil, Belgium, France and Australia. The opera was sung in the original Czech, with English and Dutch surtitles.

Watch the trailer for Rusalka in Antwerp and Ghent (with English subtitles).

My photos in this post are from 2012 and 2019. I wrote the text in 2020.

See more posts on Antwerp, Belgium.

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