Santa Fe New Mexican

Soprano Ailyn Pérez learned the basics of Rusalka’s plot as a child. Like many in her generation, it was via a videocassette of the 1989 Disney animated film The Little Mermaid. And she’s long known about the opera’s title role, thanks to the Metropolitan Opera’s celebrated production starring Renée Fleming, but she’s been waiting for the right time to sing it.

Fortunately for Santa Fe Opera fans, that time is now. “It requires a lot of vocal maturity, which a 20-something-year-old needs time to develop,” she says.

The scope of the role, with its five arias, and its tessitura, which Pérez describes as “middle, middle, middle-low,” also entered into her decision to wait a few years before performing it. “So here I am now in my prime, and I’m excited to bring Rusalka to life and to add another Slavic role to my repertory.”

For many listeners,  Rusalka is “The Song to the Moon” opera. It’s a stunningly beautiful, mostly languid aria, in which the title character pleads for celestial help in finding her beloved. Pérez loves to sing it, but she’s just as enthusiastic about the less-familiar ones as well.

The showpiece that demonstrates her character’s greatest emotional and musical distance comes in the middle of the second act. She’s cut a Faustian bargain with Ježibaba, the local witch, to take on human form so she can be united with the prince she’s fallen in love with. After a week of mutual passion, his attention shifts to a foreign princess, leaving Rusalka angry and distraught.

“She’s accepting and yet fighting against her decision,” Pérez says. “In the way Dvořák wrote it, I tend to hear the burden of a curse. It’s the witchy side of a Rusalka who’s going to be the siren, to have teeth and let out her anger, which is also mixed with pain.”

Asked whether her handsome prince, tenor Robert Watson, is appropriately swoonworthy, Pérez replies, “Oh, absolutely! He’s physically demonstrative of his confidence, he’s theatrical, he’s generous, and God, what a voice, what a voice. He has this really exciting, young, heroic tenor, and those are very rare in this world.” Watson has also passed the strength test, she says, being able to pick her up and carry her offstage with ease.

When we first see and hear Rusalka, she seems shy and timid. Her opening line is just two words, sung quietly over a very light orchestral accompaniment. “She almost doesn’t dare to ask how to become human,” Pérez says, “but she does. She’s very brave. So she does ask, and then she takes us on a wild ride.”