Monday, February 13, 2012: Inside Fairyland

Dvořák Rusalka opera for children

Dolní Slivno wood sprites and water goblins dance in Dvořák's 'Rusalka'

Inside Dvořák’s Fairyland

It’s the last, cold day of January, and the 23 wiggly, giggly kids from the Dolní Slivno Elementary School don’t know it yet, but in a few minutes they will magically transform into wood sprites, water goblins, and an orchestra to perform scenes from Dvořák’s opera Rusalka.

It starts with a quick tour through the museum exhibition on Antonín Dvořák: the students, age 9 to 11, strum a zither, answer the museum guide’s questions (“What’s this?” “An old telephone!” “Did Dvořák have a mobile?” “Noo!!”), and examine costumes from the opera.

They do it all under the careful, watchful eyes of their teachers, Markéta Vondráková and Pavlina Součková, who of course have major help from the field trip’s “conductor,” Radmila Habánová, musicologist of the National Museum. The 90-minute excursion into Dvořák’s life and work is taking place right in the middle of the current Dvořák Exhibition at the Czech Museum of Music.

They discover Dvořák’s love of trains and stare open-mouthed at the Indian costume representing some of the native people the composer met in America. They giggle at the cap and gown Dvořák wore to accept an honorary degree from Cambridge. For the kids, pulling a mysterious handle to experience the wheezing of a pump organ is another major attraction of the day.

Dolní Slivno students' wood sprite dance in Rusalka opera

Wood sprites do their fairy ring dance around the sleeping water goblins as the orchestra (right) performs in 'Rusalka'

To prepare for the opera, Mrs Habánová first asks the pre-teens lots of questions (“What is Rusalka?” “It’s an opera.” “Well, what’s an opera?” “Like, umm, umm, theatre with singing.”) and leads them to a bubble-wrap river on the floor, complete with fabric lily pads floating on top. They gather around and, importantly, are given permission to pop a bubble. Then they remain rapt with Mrs Habánová’s story-telling about the sprite who wants to experience true love.

Three boys are selected to be water goblins; they put on green hats with red ribbons. The girls fasten sheer curtains to their hair and practice being wood sprites. The rest of the students are thrilled to get noise-makers from rattles to finger cymbals to tambourines: this is the orchestra.

Under Mrs Habánová’s direction, the students perform a quickie version of the story, accompanied by the music on CD and percussion from the orchestra. After the exhilaration of the fairy dance and the march, they quickly settle down and lay on the floor to watch the darkened, long, narrow ceiling. Mrs Habánová shines a focused flashlight beam to simulate the Moon slowly moving across the night sky as the famous Dvořák aria plays.

When the aria finishes, she switches on the lights again, the kids are rousted – and they’re actually disappointed, as their soft grumbles show. Each boy and girl will somehow remember the special feeling created by this aria for a very long time.

Antonín Dvořák children

Antonín Dvořák and his pals

As the final activity, the students clamor to pose for photos. One of the liveliest, older boys is chosen to leave the room, and comes back dressed as – surprise! – Antonín Dvořák in the Cambridge cap and gown.

But he stands with quiet dignity as the other students gather around him to pose for their portrait with the immortal composer.

Somehow, they will remember. — oo

– Mary Matz

Photo Credits: Miroslav Setnička

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