Rusalka is a water nymph from Slavic mythology who risks everything for love.
She falls in love with a prince hunting around her lake. A witch offers her a potion and Rusalka takes a sip, trading her beautiful voice for the gift of legs.
The Santa Fe Opera is staging the Antonín Dvorák classic beginning on Saturday, July 22.
Soprano Ailyn Pérez will sing the role made famous by Renée Fleming. The opera marks her third performance here.
The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Pérez was born in Chicago and raised in suburban Elk Grove Village. She grew up knowing nothing about opera. At “10 or 11,” she began playing both the flute and the cello. But it wasn’t until she met her high school voice teacher that she learned she possessed a voice of operatic caliber.
“He said, ‘You have a talent,’ ” Pérez said in a telephone interview from Santa Fe. “You’re definitely going to sing.”
After he recommended she listen to various sopranos, Pérez put on an album of Maria Callas’ “Diva” collection.
“I just felt like I was leaving my body,” Pérez said. “When I hear music, I may not even know the language, but there’s a sense of mood or emotion.
“I didn’t even go to an opera until I enrolled in Indiana University as a voice performance major,” she added.
She is a 2019 Opera News Awards Honoree, and the winner of the 2012 Richard Tucker Award. In 2016, she received the $50,000 Beverly Sills Award and the 2017 Sphinx Medal of Excellence from the Sphinx Organization dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts. She has performed at the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, Staatsoper Berlin, Opéra national de Paris, the Houston Grand Opera and the Washington National Opera.
Pérez’s Santa Fe debut came in “Faust” in 2011, followed by “Roméo et Juliette” in 2016.
The character of Rusalka is ephemeral, she says.
“She is not human,” Pérez said. “It’s about a fantasy world, and it’s about nature versus humanity, and be careful what you wish for. She starts at belonging to the water. She goes on this journey beyond the water because she wants to find love. She has to decide if to save herself she has to kill the prince or become nothing.
“Ultimately, you know the answer is within yourself,” Pérez said. “It offers an abundance of imagination.”
The company premiere will be directed by the acclaimed Sir David Pountney, whose vision is of a Freudian fairy tale set in a psychiatric hospital in Vienna. Led by conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, Robert Watson performs as the Prince and Mary Elizabeth Williams is the Foreign Princess, both in their company debuts.
Pérez had to learn (and is still learning) Czech for the role.
“It is hard, but it is written in Latin letters,” she said. “It helps because at least you can see the letter characters, unlike Cyrillic.”
Pérez will sing the title role in “Florencia en el Amazonas” by Daniel Catán at the Metropolitan Opera on Nov. 16. She made her Met debut in “Carmen” in 2015.
For now, she’s concentrating on “Rusalka.”
“The Santa Fe Opera is the most important American opera festival, period,” she said. “The New Mexico culture is extraordinary.”