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27 April 2015

Turning Grimm tales into opera

Turning Grimm tales into opera

Gordon Kerry and John Kinsella's new opera consists of five separate stories, all based on old fairy tales as told by the Grimm brothers. Snow White and other Grimm tales will receive its premiere in Melbourne on 28 May, performed by Opera Scholars Australia and the Melbourne-based Hopkins Sinfonia.

Sometimes things just fall into place. Early in 2014 I was approached by Graeme Wall, director of Australian Music Events in Melbourne, which for many years now has presented 'beautiful music in beautiful places' including the annual Opera in the Alps. This began life at Mount Buffalo but now attracts crowds of some thousands to Beechworth, about an hour's drive west of where I live in north-eastern Victoria. Owing to the massive bushfires that struck the area between Harrietville, Victoria, and Canberra in January 2003, the event that year was cancelled; for the next year's concert I composed the memorial Through the Fire for soloists, chorus and orchestra, which was taken to heart by the performers and audience, and established a relationship between me and Australian Music Events.

Graeme's approach last year was to see whether I would compose something stageable for Opera Scholars Australia, a group of around 25 young singers (most in their early 20s) managed by his organisation. John Kinsella, one of Australia's greatest poets, and I had been talking about a couple of operatic possibilities for some time, and by complete chance a friend in Melbourne, who unexpectedly found herself in a position to act as a philanthropist, had contacted me about ways in which she might support any project that I might have otherwise found it hard to bring about. My friend loved the idea of a piece for young performers, especially with words and music by John and me, so with her support we were able to proceed.

The chorus that backs the often big-name soloists at Opera in the Alps is drawn from metropolitan and local choirs. Over the years, its backbone has been provided by the Scholars, who are carefully auditioned and, if successful, given a scholarship, and who increasingly take on some of the solo work. In addition, the Scholars produce the occasional 'hard-top' event, and in early 2014 presented Carmen in the Gaol. This was a cut-down version of Bizet's opera, with a narration by Don Jose (played by director Kyahl Anderson) of the events leading up to his imminent execution. Accompanied by piano, the staging, on a small podium, was minimal, but using simple props and costumes, multiple casting and the louring atmosphere of the gaol (with Ned Kelly's scaffold front and centre) the effect was terrific. Seeing it gave me a strong idea of where the Scholars' individual and several strengths lay, and this was fortified when later in the year I saw a number of the Scholars in Victorian Opera's production of Richard Mills's remarkable take on the medieval Play of Herod.

Of the various things John Kinsella and I were considering, a show based on some of the Grimms' fairy tales seemed the most appropriate for this particular ensemble. We decided to keep each tale as a self-contained scene, thus providing a short and manageable dramatic arc for the singers to focus on, and of course the profusion of roles, often small, enabled me to write for a large group of soloists, taking into account that some might be at this stage less experienced, especially with new music, than others.

The brothers Grimm collected and published their Children's and Household Tales in the early 19th century, partly as a by-product of their research into the evolution of spoken German, but mainly in response to the Romantic movement's interest in medieval and folk traditions. Some of their sources were indeed peasants, so some tales as recorded no doubt helped the long winter nights simply fly by in the Teutoburger Forest. Others were collected from middle-class and aristocratic people, so in some cases were probably known in the literary version, produced two centuries earlier in France by Charles Perrault. The Grimms are said progressively to have edited the tales for a straight-laced middle-class readership, though there is no shortage of darkness, fear and violence in many of their versions.

Since then many of the tales have experienced numerous dramatic incarnations: operas by Rossini and Humperdinck, ballets by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Kats-Chernin, a musical by Sondheim, movies by Disney. (This year alone we've seen a Disney version of Sondheim's Into the Woods, and a new Cinderella.) And they have been co-opted as moral or political fables. But, like all myths, the Tales can be pulled out of shape but never quite break, as each contains more than a grain of psychological truth, or as Bruno Bettelheim puts it in his important Freudian essay The Uses of Enchantment, 'state an existential dilemma briefly and pointedly'.

We chose five stories, three of which feature one or more strong female roles, and two - the 'even-numbered' scenes - that feature male principals. This reflects the fact of there being more female singers, and that female voices tend to mature earlier than men's.

In the first tale, The Seven Ravens, a young girl is born, sickly. Her brothers are sent to the well for water for her baptism but fall and break their vessels, and are cursed by their father and changed into ravens. The girl grows up and goes on a quest to seek them out at the end of the world, redeeming them and herself through her own sacrifice. Bettelheim suggests that The Seven Ravens might be a metaphor for the coming of Christianity and the banishment of paganism; to me it offered a kind of mini-Wagnerian story of a strong woman whose courage saves her brothers.

In The Grave Mound, which follows, a Rich Farmer is assailed by his conscience, which he salves by giving free food to a poor man whom he asks watch over his grave. The Rich Farmer promptly dies and the Poor Man, and a passing soldier, outwit the Devil who inevitably turns up to take the Rich Man's soul to hell.

The centrepiece is Snow White, whose eponymous character is a mezzo-soprano, allowing the evil Queen (her stepmother) and her Mirror to be a matched pair of coloratura sopranos. Snow White is the longest of the scenes, with Snow White's birth, her stepmother's repeated attempts to kill her, the repeated attempts of the Dwarfs to revive her, the appearance of the handsome prince and the wedding scene in which the Queen receives her punishment.

Offsetting this is another short 'scherzo' for male voices, The Peasant in Heaven. The Peasant and a rich man die at the same time and arrive at the Pearly Gates. Saint Peter only sees the Rich Man and welcomes him with a chorus of angels singing the plainchant In paradisum; when the Peasant complains, Saint Peter apologies but points out that they only get a rich man in heaven every hundred years.

Finally, The Old Woman in the Wood sees a young girl abandoned in the forest; she is looked after by a dove who sends her on a quest which, successfully performed, allows her to break the enchantment on what turns out to be another handsome prince.

In composing the music I have in the first instance tried to make John Kinsella's excellent libretto as clear as possible, giving much thought to where in the singers' tessitura certain vowels should be placed and scoring the accompaniment - provided by a 13-piece instrumental ensemble - to support but never to obscure the vocal lines. The musical language is essentially diatonic, often modal as in the off-stage chorus of the Ravens, though accommodating of the florid melismas of the Rich Man's conscience (in The Grave Mound) or the evil Queen (in Snow White). Music can allow one to manipulate time in ways that spoken-word theatre finds difficult, largely through the use of polyphony to simultaneously express two or more characters' response to a situation.

Certain ideas, as we see, recur in the five tales, so there is some musical and thematic correspondence between scenes. The Seven Ravens and The Old Woman in the Wood both feature a young woman, determined to do good, who discovers herself to be brave and selfless, and in doing so rescues others from enchantment. Both have to make a journey, and the image of the locks and keys is important. The girl in The Seven Ravens has to enter the Glass Mountain through a locked door, using her severed finger as the key; in The Old Woman in the Wood, the girl is given a key by the Dove to unlock the trees that sustain and shelter her. The Ravens' sister has a ring, whose discovery turns the birds back into men; in the Old Woman's house the girl has to find a ring, which breaks the spell over the Dove, who is an enchanted young man, and his followers.

There are lots of doors in the Grimms' stories. The greedy Rich Farmer in The Grave Mound hears knocking, which turns out to be his conscience, then real knocking which introduces the poor man who will be his salvation; Snow White is constantly harassed (and fooled) by the knocking of the evil Queen, disguised in various ways; in The Peasant in Heaven, Saint Peter seems a little selective about which knocks at the pearly gates he actually hears.

Numbers are important, too. There are seven ravens and seven dwarfs (who live over the seven mountains). The Poor Man and the Soldier watch over the grave mound for three nights; Snow White is tricked three times; the girl in the wood is visited three times by the dove, with a key to three trees.

The Evil One in The Grave Mound, and the Queen in Snow White come to bad ends, but most live happily ever after - just what one would want for a group of emerging musicians. The Ravens, restored, return home with their sister; the Poor Man and the Soldier decide jointly to care for the Poor Man's children; the Peasant is admitted to heaven after all, and when the Dove is transformed, he and the girl express their eternal love as the trees of the forest are transformed back into humans.

Further links

Snow White and Other Grimm Tales in Melbourne on 28 May - event details in the AMC Calendar.
Gordon Kerry - AMC profile
Australian Music Events website (http://www.australianmusicevents.com.au/)

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