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Following her critically acclaimed and award-winning production of La traviata (2022), director Sarah Giles returns to West Australian Opera to stage Rusalka.

Ahead of premiering this grand-scale new production, Giles reflects on re-framing this familiar fairytale.  

Tell us about Dvořák’s opera, Rusalka.

Rusalka is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. It’s the Czechoslovakian lake version of the fairytale we know. In Kvapil's version, who wrote the poem and the opera’s libretto, Rusalka is not a mermaid, but she's human personification of water. She lives in an underwater world, she sees the Prince, she falls in love with him, she trades her voice and makes a deal with a witch to be with the man that she thinks she loves.

I have some problems with the original text and the original story. The idea of a woman just seeing a man, falling in love with him and throwing everything away for that is odd and somewhat foolish. This traditional way of thinking about her really bugs me, so when I started thinking about this story, I wanted to try and not refer to Rusalka as the passive, mute character that so many people think of when they think of this opera, but more of a brave adventurer. She is insanely brave, going to an unknown world, she abandons her family and everything she's ever known. She is boldly searching out other places where she thinks she might belong. So yes, she sees this Prince swimming in the waters and she thinks she loves him, but she also sees in him the possibility of a better life in a different world.

We have imagined Rusalka’s underwater world as quite oppressive. She's not having the greatest time ever in her lake with her father and her sisters. It's not a world where you can be an individual or pursue what you want. So, she goes to the human world, trying to find a better life. That doesn't work out and she's punished.

Something we've been talking a lot about in rehearsals is the idea that we're endlessly trying to please other people. In Act II, Rusalka spends a lot of time trying to please the Prince and I think it's not until she learns to please herself that she's liberated. This production is about reclaiming and reframing Rusalka, making her into this incredibly active, very brave adventurer. This requires quite a bit of rewiring and rethinking. Elena is incredible, we're having a lot of fun trying to find the staging through this different take on it.

What do you think is the moral of this story?

This production feels like a contemporary feminist existential nightmare fairytale. The point of any fairytale is the lesson that you learn, and I think in this one you learn about bravely searching out a place where you feel you belong, not settling, not existing just to please other people, not doing what you're told to do, and boldly trying to find a place where you feel you belong. Particularly from a feminist perspective, there is a sense that women are meant to behave and please. Some operas have these archetypes inside them and I do think it's possible to break that archetype apart and find a more contemporary way through it. This is what we're currently thrashing about in the rehearsal room.

What inspired your approach?

There's a brilliant 1982 cartoon which my brother and I watched religiously over and over. It's called The Last Unicorn written by Peter S. Beagle and directed by Arthur Rankin. Given I watched this over and over as a child it is unsurprising that I still see its influence on my work. For me, animation is always a huge point of inspiration, like the worlds of Miyazaki, especially the tiny forest spirits in some of his movies.


You are reunited with many frequent collaborators. Tell us about your creative partnership.

Charles Davis, Set Designer, Renée Mulder, Costume Designer, Paul Jackson, Lighting Designer, and I have worked together on several projects. The amazing thing about working with collaborators who I've worked with before is that you come with a history, there's a shorthand, there's a bodywork that you can draw on together and a language that you're endlessly building on in terms of not only how you communicate with each other, but as a stage language.

For example, Charles and the sets that we often make together operate in a sort of Rubik's Cube fashion. We worked on The Importance of Being Earnest and No Pay, No Way with Sydney Theatre Company, La traviata with West Australian Opera (2022). All those sets had moving elements, in this one we're keeping that Rubik's Cube element, but it's a very different way of realising it.

Those conversations between Charles, Renée, Paul, and myself have all been very fluid. It's also fun because we're all here together and so we get to hang out and have lots of dinners and eat all the good food in Perth, which is proving plentiful.

How has Dvořák’s music inspired your work?

I've never worked on such a large-scale through-composed opera before, and I'm finding the magic of that has been hugely informative in how we imagine the space. The set is fluid in the way it changes, and in a similarly effortless way, Dvořák’s score does that as well.

The music is just so evocative it brings images and emotions immediately to your mind. What's interesting to me is when we go with those emotions and when we push against them. There are quite a few moments where it feels like Dvořák's imagined something very romantic and beautiful in his mind and I'm actively playing against that because for me it's a very violent moment in the opera.

We are also using a lot of reflective surfaces like two-way mirrors, Perspex and black mirrors. The music influences how I think about everything in terms of staging and the emotion of the piece. It feels incredibly raw at times.

West Australian Opera presents Rusalka at His Majesty's Theatre from 18 - 27 July. Book here.

Photography credits:
Dylan Alcock (Rusalka), Clinton Bradbury (La traviata)