Opera: Magical Lilies, A Family Curse & A Half-Winged Prince Take Center Stage in “The Thirteenth Child”

Published: July 22nd, 2019

Category: Featured, News

Opera: Magical Lilies, A Family Curse & A Half-Winged Prince Take Center Stage in “The Thirteenth Child”- World Premiere July 27

This post first appeared on Once Upon a Blog on July 19, 2019. 

Composer Poul Ruder is probably best known for his well-received, operatic adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which was called “an outstandingly effective piece of music theater” by Opera News and as “a riveting, kaleidoscopic score” by The New York Times. With four operas with serious subject matter already under his belt, Ruder wanted to produce a more positive, less weighty work of fantasy and the Brother’s Grimm fairy tale, The Twelve Brothers (a variant of the better known The Six Swans, also a Grimms tale), hit the spot.

CD cover

“In 2010, I finished what I thought would be my last opera,” said composer Poul Ruders. “But being a composer, I knew that somewhere there was a subject lying in wait for me to put my paws on. For a Dane to do a Hans Christian Andersen story would be too obvious! So I went for The Brothers Grimm instead.

In reading through their stories, I kept coming back to this one, which I think is emotionally very potent.
“As opposed to The Handmaid’s Tale, which is an opera for grown-ups, I would say that The Thirteenth Child is good for all ages, including children, who I hope will find it kind of scary. If not, I haven’t done my job very well. I think if you can sit through a Harry Potter movie and enjoy it and not have to leave the bedroom light on at night, you’ll love this! (SantaFeOpera – season announcement)

Ahead of the world premiere next week at the Santa Fe Opera, in New Mexico, a CD has been released.

From Santa Fe Opera:

QUOTH THE RAVEN, “NEVERMORE”

Costume board for The Thirteenth Child opera

Forget about magic beans and bowls of porridge—this fairy tale is a “down-to-the-wire” thriller, inspired by the Brothers Grimm. A paranoid king banishes his twelve sons in favor of Lyra, the thirteenth child. When Princess Lyra learns about her long-lost brothers, she embarks on a quest to find them. Like all the best fairy tales, it has an enchanted forest, riddles, a handsome prince, a horrible mistake, and a nearly impossible feat for Princess Lyra to perform if everything is to be put right.

Don’t miss it, especially if you want to live happily ever after!

(Synopsis)Act I, Scene 1
The neighboring kingdoms of Frohagord and Hauven are in crisis. Following a warning by his embittered cousin Drokan, Regent of Hauven, King Hjarne of Frohagord is convinced that his twelve sons are plotting to overthrow him. The twelve princes, oblivious to their father’s paranoia, play in the courtyard. The enraged King threatens his sons, telling his pregnant wife, Queen Gertrude, that she must provide him with a female heir, as “only she shall wear the crown”. Gertrude calms Hjarne and they sing of the Lilies of Frohagord, magical flowers that protect the kingdom. When Benjamin, the youngest prince, innocently plucks a lily from the garden, Hjarne flies into a mad rage and strikes Gertrude. Drokan, observing the encounter, admits his love for Gertrude and feels “the trembling of the earth.”

The Twelve Brothers – first third of a banner illustration by (Phillis) Ming Hai

Act I, Scene 2
Eighteen years have passed and King Hjarne has died. At Hjarne’s funeral, Frederic, the young heir to the throne of Hauven, and Drokan, and the mourners tell of the mysterious disappearance of the King’s thirteen children and the shadows that haunt the kingdom. Queen Gertrude, now mortally ill, and her daughter, Princess Lyra, enter the Royal Chapel. Gertrude is repelled by the sight of Drokan, while Frederic is drawn to Lyra. Drokan plots to usurp the Kingdom of Frohagord and Frederic dreams of the day when Lyra will be his.

Act I, Scene 3
Queen Gertrude is on her deathbed, attended by Princess Lyra. Lyra asks her mother why she was sent away from Frohagord when she was young. Gertrude instructs Lyra to open a secret drawer where Lyra finds twelve shirts embroidered with the red Lilies of Frohagord. Gertrude reveals that the shirts belong to Lyra’s twelve missing brothers, who were also sent away, taking Frohagord’s lily bulbs with them. Before dying, Gertrude begs Lyra to find her brothers and heal the family’s wounds. Lyra vows to find the twelve Princes.

The Twelve Brothers – second third of a banner illustration by (Phillis) Ming Hai

Act II, Scene 1
Lyra wanders through an enchanted forest, coming upon a cottage with twelve lilies in bloom. She encounters Benjamin, whom she learns is the youngest of her brothers. In the distance the older brothers are heard as they return home from a hunt. Benjamin, who fears that his brothers will seek revenge against Lyra, hides her. After his brothers assure him that they will do no harm, Benjamin reveals Lyra, much to the joy of all. Preparing for a celebratory feast, Lyra cuts the red lilies, unintentionally casting a spell that transforms her brothers into ravens. She is devastated by her tragic mistake.

Act II, Scene 2
Queen Gertrude appears as an apparition and tells Lyra that in order for her brothers to return to human form, she must remain mute for seven years.

Act II, Scene 3
Almost seven years have passed, and Frederic’s search for Lyra is rewarded. A great wedding celebration is planned by the people of Hauven. Drokan jealously plots to destroy the couple and gain the throne of both kingdoms. Before the wedding is to take place, a violent storm threatens Hauven, sending Frederic and his men away to rescue their countrymen.

The Twelve Brothers – last third of a banner illustration by (Phillis) Ming Hai

 Act II, Scene 4

In the courtyard of the castle of Hauven, Drokan accosts Lyra and demands that she marry him. When she refuses, he binds her to a bonfire. As Drokan lights it, Frederic and his men return, and the twelve ravens swoop down, forcing Drokan into the fire. Suddenly, the lilies burst into bloom, returning the brothers to human form. In the battle, Benjamin is mortally wounded, his body half human, half raven, as he vanquishes Drokan. Frederic rescues Lyra from the bonfire. As Benjamin is dying, he finds peace, and all sing of the restoration of hope.

You can read about the creation of the opera from a fairly extensive New York Times article HERE, and see how they adjusted the fairy tale story for the opera. While it seems the opera does stick quite close to the source material, there are some updates that creator Poul Ruder felt was needed for the work.

Here’s a nice little visual insight from Director, Darko Tresnjak in discussing the set:

Costumes for The Thirteenth Child, showing the “red lily” motif

“What initially struck me about The Thirteenth Child is that every moment in the tight, suspenseful libretto is essential. We are plunged into the dizzying, fearsome story from the opening measure. What follows are seven swift scenes, each one set in a new location, each one introducing a new crisis. 

The set is based on a tower that Alexander Dodge, our set designer, saw as a child. There is a bird’s eye view of the tower, the sensationof staring down the stairwell. It made me think of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, especially the tower scene at the end and the famous dolly zoom effect. 

I think of this upended environment as the interior of King Hjarne’s addled, paranoid head. The nightmare into which he plunges his family and his kingdom. The set will give us the opportunity, through the use of projection mapping, to swiftly move from one location to another and to create moments of terror and of wonder.”

The Twelve Brothers – full banner illustration by (Phillis) Ming Hai –  click to view full size
 Here are some musical excerpts from The Thirteenth Child, with subtitled libretto and some lovely drawings, to give you a taste:
There is a special Q&A event with the creative team happening next Friday, July 26th:
Conversation with Creative Team of The Thirteenth Child
Moderated by Cori Ellison, Santa Fe Opera Dramaturg
Time & Location: Jul 26, 6:00 PM
Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeehous,
202 Galisteo Street, Santa Fe, NM, USA

THE THIRTEENTH CHILD
Poul Ruders, composer
Becky and David Starobin, librettists
New Production. A World Premiere.
Co-commission and co-production with Odense Symphony Orchestra.
July 27, 31; August 9, 14, 21
Click HERE for tickets

ADDITIONAL ILLUSTRATIONS NOTE:

‘Banner’ illustrations throughout are from The Twelve Brothers by (Phyllis) Ming Hai. Please see her website and social media links below to view more of her lovely work.
TWITTER: @CloudieNine
INSTAGRAM: cloudienine
 

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