After serving as understudy to one of the greatest sopranos of our time, Melissa Citro is ready to break out on her own.

For the first time in her 15-year opera career, Citro will be singing the title role in this weekend’s performances of Antonin Dvorak’s “Rusalka” at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts.

In the spring, she served as understudy in the role for Renee Fleming at the New York Metropolitan Opera, waiting patiently for a chance that never came. Fleming didn’t miss a single performance.

Presented by the New Orleans Opera Association, “Rusalka” will be given its New Orleans premiere on Friday evening and Sunday afternoon. The work will be sung in Czech, with English translations.

“Learning ‘Rusalka’ this year has been a real pleasure because it’s the most famous and possibly the greatest of all Czech operas,” said Citro, who specializes in Czech and German opera. “It would be a great first opera for someone who’s never been to one. The music is just so gorgeous, and the story is so interesting and timeless.”

The story line of “Rusalka” will seem familiar to those who love “The Little Mermaid.” Composed in 1901 from a libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil, “Rusalka” is the story of a water nymph who falls in love with a handsome prince and wishes to become human.

Despite warnings from the water gnome, Vodnik, that humans are evil, she refuses to be dissuaded and drinks a potion prepared for her by the witch Jezibaba.

However, the price she has to pay for becoming human is the loss of her voice. (Unlike the Disney version of “The Little Mermaid,” this story doesn’t have a happily-ever-after ending.)

The best-known piece in the opera is the Act I aria, “Song to the Moon,” described as “one of the most sumptuous arias in all of opera” by Robert Lyall, New Orleans Opera’s general and artistic director.

Lyall will be conducting the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra during both performances. The aria is Rusalka’s plaintive plea for the moon to tell the prince of her love. “It’s such a beautiful song with a gorgeous melody and universal appeal,” Citro noted, “but so is the rest of the opera. The entire score is full of music that is just so rich and beautiful and thrilling to listen to.”

Commenting on her proficiency in the challenging Czech tongue, Citro observed, “It’s a really nice language to sing in. The vowels are very similar to those in Italian and once you get the hang of the tricky consonant combinations, it’s a pleasure to sing in Czech.”

Over her career Citro has also carved out a niche in the German opera repertoire, especially those composed by Richard Wagner. She has sung the entire, four-opera “Ring Cycle” in nearly every soprano role except that of Brunhilde.

“By happenstance, actually, I’ve been working so much in German and Czech that one thing led to another and that thing became a specialty,” Citro noted.

Also in the “Rusalka” cast are tenor A.J. Glueckert as the Prince, bass Raymond Aceto as Vodnik, mezzo-soprano Jill Grove as Jezibaba and soprano Kathleen Halm as the Foreign Princess. The three Wood-Sprites are Amanda McCarthy, Annie Halbert and Brindley McWhorter, and Taylor Miller is the Hunter.

William Murray directs the production, Gregory Schramel and Marjorie Hardwick choreograph the dance sequences and Carol Rausch coordinates the New Orleans Opera Chorus. The sets were designed by Murray and the recently deceased G. Alan Rusnak.