Friday, January 28, 2011

The first step is admitting you have a problem...

You know how when you’re starting off in a relationship, it’s all warm fuzzies, I love you, no I love you more, want to know everything there is to know about you? I’m there. Yes, it’s true that there are others; faithful old loves that I know inside and out and they still thrill me – La bohème, Turandot, Aïda… the list goes on. This is something new though; unexpected… intriguing. I can’t seem to get enough. It’s official. There’s no use denying it…

I am a raving, self-admitted Rusalka-holic.

Any others out there? I love the sheer beauty of the orchestration; you hear it and suddenly you’re in this magical world with water nymphs and wood sprites. I’m not quite sure what the difference is between a nymph and a sprite, but that’s beside the point. I love that it’s in Czech; the language becomes part of the characters as they sing. It’s unusual enough to keep you entranced for all three acts. Most of all though, I love the story. It’ll rip your heart right out, but heck, every girl loves a good cry now and then. Guys, you’re welcome to join in the sobbing; high fives are generally accepted too. In Rusalka, we’ve got opera doing what opera does best; emotional rollercoaster storytelling… with nymphs and sprites.

--Cherity Koepke

More information about Rusalka is available at

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Music in the Blood

Dvořák’s heritage is carried on today by Josef Suk III (b. 1929), his great-grandson via Dvořák’s daughter Otylie and her husband, composer Josef Suk I. A gifted violinist and violist, Suk III has recorded and performed in concert with most of the top figures in music for the past sixty years. His repertoire ranges from Mozart to Alban Berg and does not neglect that of the best known member of his family. His recent CD “Songs my Great-Grandfather Taught Me” is a collection of Dvořák songs transcribed for violin or viola with piano. The selections with viola were performed on Dvořák’s own personal viola, released for the occasion from the museum where it resides. One likes to imagine that the instrument felt at home in Suk’s hands.

To see Suk in action, go to either of these You Tube links; both have him performing Dvořák’s music.

Josef Suk playing the first movement of Dvorak’s Violin Concerto:

Josef Suk playing the second movement of Dvorak’s Violin Sonatina:

--Betsy Schwarm

Friday, January 21, 2011

Dvořák and American Music

When Dvořák came to the US to lead the National Conservatory, he found students who, as he observed, might have talent but lacked direction.  His mission was to give them direction, and he did so with determination.  In an editorial he wrote for the New York Herald in 1893, he observed, “The new American school of music must strike its roots deeply into its own soil.”  One specific suggestion he made for developing an American style was to examine Black American music, which he himself had learned from his student Harry Burleigh.  Northern urban audiences were skeptical of the value of spirituals, yet Dvořák’s assertions still stands as an early validation of Black musical resources. 

--Betsy Scwarm

Learn more about how American music influenced Dvořák  at this weekend's concerts at the Colorado Symphony. More information about the "Inside the Score" concerts at this link.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Big news during Dvořák's life

The Statue of Liberty being assembled in Paris
Another highly selective list, this time of important historic events during Dvořák’s lifetime:

- 1848: revolutions in Europe, in the wake of the publishing of The Communist Manifesto
- 1849: the California Gold Rush (Colorado’s was in 1859)
- 1857-58: Indian Mutiny against British rule
- 1861-65: US Civil War
- 1866: the unification of Italy
- 1871: the unification of Germany
- 1886: the Statue of Liberty is erected (six years later, Dvořák and his family sail past it into New York Harbor)
- 1894: Nicholas II becomes the last Tsar of Russia
- 1898: Austrian Empress Elisabeth is assassinated by an Italian anarchist
- 1899-1902: the Boer War in South Africa
- 1901: The Victorian Era ends with the death of Queen Victoria; she is succeeded by Edward VII
- 1901: US President William McKinley is assassinated; he is succeeded by Theodore Roosevelt
Can you imagine what it would have been like to be a journalist? Even a diligent reader of newspapers would be amazed at many of these events!
--Betsy Schwarm

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Scientific Landmarks

Consider the following highly selective list of important landmarks in science during Dvořák’s lifetime:
- 1846: founding of the Smithsonian Institution
- 1856: Henry Bessemer perfects his process for converting iron into steel
- 1858: the first trans-Atlantic telegraph
- 1859: Charles Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species
- 1867: Alfred Nobel patents dynamite
- 1869: completion of the first American transcontinental railroad (Dvořák loved trains)
- 1876: Alexander Graham Bell perfects the telephone
- 1877: Thomas Edison develops the phonograph (and in 1879 the light bulb)
- 1886: Karl Benz patents his first automobile, the Motorwagen
- 1888: George Eastman patents the Kodak camera
- 1895: Guglielmo Marconi develops the wireless telegraph, fore-runner of radio
- 1903: the Wright Brothers’ first flight
Such a time it would have been to be a science journalist!
--Betsy Schwarm

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Nationalism and music in the Czech Republic

Many upcoming Czech Point Denver events include discussions of Nationalism and its indlufence on the Czech Republic at the turn of the last century and the early twentieth century. Betsy Schwarm shared these thoughts about Nationalism's influence on Czech composers.

In European politics, 1848 was a watershed year, as Marx and Engels published their Communist Manifesto, planting the seed that common people should take charge of their own fate.  Within the greater Austrian Empire, that ideal led various ethnic groups long controlled by the Hapsburgs to demand independence.  Prague, principal city of Bohemia, became a focal point of that unrest.  There was an artistic angle in this move toward national expression.  Czech-born composers, Smetana first, but soon Dvořák and various others, began making a point of alluding to Czech folk song and dance in their works for the concert hall, proving that one could be simultaneously Czech and also a composer of great music. 

If you are interested in this topic, here are some upcoming events that might interest you:


WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 19, 7:30 PM, AT SOBO 151 (151 S. Broadway in Denver)
Join Robert Adler Peckerar, assistant professor of Jewish Literature and Culture at CU-Boulder, for an interactive evening that examines the phenomenon of Jewish soccer in central and eastern Europe at the start of the last century – its controversies, politics, and importance in understanding the birth of a new European Jewish culture. And do it while enjoying a refreshing Czech beer in Denver’s favorite Czech sports bar. Free event. 21 ID required.


From Dvorák to Kafka, Czech cultural figures have had a lasting impact on the arts. In this program with live music illustrations, we’ll consider the world view of three generations of Czech artists and how they have affected the arts even beyond their own borders. Includes presentations by music historian Betsy Schwarm, CU Boulder associate professor of German & Comparative Literature, Humanities and Jewish Studies, Davide Stimilli, and performances by the Opera Colorado Young Artists.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The challenges of singing in Czech

While Rusalka is regarded by many people as a masterpiece of the operatic repertoire, it is rarely performed. The main stumbling block is language. Few opera singers are trained to sing in Czech. As rehearsals begin for Rusalka this week, we asked a few questions of our Czech language coach Petra Ulrych as she prepares to help our singers tackle this somewhat daunting challenge.

You have a quite a bit of experience with the Czech language. Would you mind telling us a little bit about how you got interested in the language and the culture?

Because I don't speak with an accent in English, many people don't immediately know that I am Czech! I was born there a year before the Warsaw Pact troops occupied the country in 1968, so I grew up speaking Czech at home with my parents. I came to the US when I was 2 years old, so I learned English at school and from Sesame Street! My mother was very strict in her desire to have her children retain the Czech language, so despite the fact that she learned English, she would basically pretend to not hear us unless we spoke to her in Czech, so I quickly came to understand as a child that if I wanted to eat, I had to say to, "Mam hlad!" not "I'm hungry!"

When I was in my early twenties, Communism was overturned in the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia), and I was able to live in Prague for a year and a half, and I interned at the Academy for the Performing Arts. I made my living teaching English to Czech students in the Music, Film, Theatre, and Art Academies, and they taught me all the good slang of the day. To supplement my meager teaching salary, I did my fair share of translation work (primarily Czech to English) as there were very few "native" speakers of both English and Czech in the early 1990s in Prague. So, while my grammar still is quite imperfect in Czech (grammar is incredibly difficult in Czech), I understand Czech without needing to translate in my head, and I am lucky to have spoken it since birth, so the phonemes and sounds don't sound foreign to me. I hold a BA in Theatre and Communications, so I have very much enjoyed learning dialects, accents, and language, and I was lucky enough to have direct instruction on "standard stage Czech" working with Czech actors, singers, and artists while I lived in Prague. I can hear my own American accent creep into my Czech when I haven't been speaking it frequently or when I am speaking to a Czech person that I don't know so well and am nervous. Czechs are very prideful of their language, and they are very quick to correct you!

So, I grew up steeped in Czech culture with my mother reading Capek's Kocicka a Pesek (Kitty and Doggie) stories and listening to Czech fairy tales on 45s that my grandparents mailed to us, and as an adult I have been happy to retain my Czech language, as it has helped me understand who and whence I come from, even though I don't have many opportunities to speak Czech! There just aren't that many of us in the world who speak Czech!

What are some basic things to remember when trying to pronounce Czech words? Any helpful tips for beginners or those new to the language?

Wow, tough question! Czech is really a very phonetic language, unlike French or English. When you learn the Czech alphabet, you learn the sounds that each letter makes. Those letters always make the same sounds, unlike English vowels which have multiple pronunciations. So, learning the Czech alphabet is really helpful because if you know what each letter sounds like (and remember this is consistent) then you just string them together. Czech uses diacritical marks that tell you very overtly when a letter is to make a different sound, so the letter "s" is the same in English, but the letter "s" with the diacritical mark called a hacek (little v over it) makes the sound that our "sh" combo in English makes. There are very few spelling rules, in fact, Czech doesn't have a verb that means "to spell," instead people simply say, "How do you write that?" and then they just sound out the word more slowly, emphasizing each individual sound.

Some of the singers from Rusalka have said that singing in Czech can be very difficult because there are so many pairings of consonants and few vowels. What is some advice specifically for singers who are attempting to sing Czech repertoire?

Yes, English speaking people tend to be thrown off by the Czech consonant combinations, I believe, mostly because they are unfamiliar consonant combinations. Take for example Rusalka's composer, Dvořák. A "d" followed by a "v" is not something that happens in English words, but I think you just have to slow down your tongue and brain for a moment, tell yourself, over 10 million Czech speakers make these sounds every day... and think about mashing the two together instead of thinking that there needs to be a syllable break between the consonants, in the same way that no English speaker hesitates when they see "gl" as in "glow" or "tw" as in "tween" or "str" as in "street."

By far the hardest Czech phoneme is ř. This is most often described as a combined rolled "r" (like in Spanish or Italian) with a "zh" (like television), and while that is true, I think English speakers then think they must make each sound distinctly with a vowel breaking it up. Most English speakers pronounce "Dvořak" as a 3-syllable word, "da-vor-zhak" but it's a 2-syllable word..."Dvo-rzhak." The best way to learn the pesky "r" sound is to roll your "r" and then to bite down on it with your teeth, much like you would if you were a ravenous dog wanting to learn Czech! Many Czech children don't master the "r" until age 6 - 8 years of age, so it's not the easiest thing! So, knowing the syllable count is helpful to know where to smash things together!

Do you have any favorite moments from Rusalka?

How can anyone not love Ježibaba's conjuring the potion scene? Also, the joy and majesty in the wedding march is tasty especially because we know that the prince will ultimately reject poor Rusalka, so it is bittersweet!

We’ve started to immerse ourselves in Rusalka and the music of Dvořák. Who are some other Czech artists that you might suggest we familiarize ourselves with?

My all-time favorite musical piece by a Czech composer is Smetana's the Vlatava from his Ma Vlast (My Country). I cannot listen to that without crying! I also love all Czech fairy tales, as they are odd combinations of darkness and magical creatures that can hurt you or be helpful. Dvořák's Carnival Overture, Op. 92 is not as well known as his New World Symphony, but I like the exuberance and joy that we hear in the Carnival piece. Prague and the Czech Republic are often seen through a very dark and Gothic lens (Kafka-esque), but Czechs can also be joyful, and so I like the Carnival Overture for that reason. I think if one loves magic and fantasy, the world of Czech puppetry is absolutely fantastic, including the Black Light Theatre convention.