December 14, 2014

The sunny, jolly NIGHTMARISH (OMG!) world of fairy tales and folk tales

Virginia Opera's Education Department has asked me to write the children's operas for the 2015-2016 touring season. So it's back to the collections of traditional children's literature, mainly because I'm too darn lazy to dream up an original libretto - I'd rather adapt something pre-existing. Besides, school administrators are more likely to book a show with familiar characters.

The search for suitable material is complicated, and 99% of the stories out there won't do for one reason or another. For one thing, I have to stick to stories that can be told with a cast of three.In this case, I already know the Opera will hire a soprano, a mezzo and a baritone.

Hans Christian Andersen
So stories with titles like "The Baker With 12 Sons" are a no-go. There can be a certain amount of actors playing multiple roles, of course, but even so, casting issues eliminate most of the field.

But what I really want to vent about this week is the GROSS, VIOLENT and OBSCENE stuff goin' on in your typical folktale. Geez, Louise! Fairy tales are not all rainbows, beautiful princesses, glass slippers and chaste kisses.

Are you one of those movie-goers who despairs at the bathroom humor in modern comedies? Have you ever ranted about endless jokes involving bodily functions in Hollywood films? I've got news for you; it has been ever thus.

Take the legendary German folk character Till Eulenspiegel, immortalized in Richard Strauss's tone poem. I've been exploring ol' Till since the subject of my next opera will be Tricksters, those archetypal jokers who appear in all cultures and in all time periods of human history.

Paul Oppenheimer translated Till's adventures in 1999 from the German. Let me share with you some of the chapter headings which, in bygone literary fashion, provide a thumbnail of the action to come:

  • Chapter 10: How Eulenspiegel became a page-boy; and how his squire taught him that whenever he found the plant hemp, he should shit on it; so he shitted on mustard, thinking that hemp and mustard were the same thing.
  • Chapter 12: How Eulenspiegel became the sexton in the village of Bueddenstedt; and how the priest shitted in his church and Eulenspiegel won a barrel of beer.
And lest you think that our man Till's interests are all scatalogical in nature, there's this mental picture I could have done without:
  • How Eulenspiegel was banished from the Duchy of Lueneberg; and how he cut open his horse and stood in it. (Someone get PETA on the phone, STAT.) 
But bodily functions are a recurring motif throughout the folk tale universe. I will also be including an age-appropriate tale of the ancient Turkish Trickster known as Nesreddin Hodja. Some of his "folk tales" are plot-driven stories suitable for stage adaption, but a number of them are simply R-rated jokes. I envision them having made the rounds on the ancient Turkish Borscht Belt. Here's a "folk tale" presented in its entirety:

The Squeaky Shoe

A guest of the Hodja's broke wind, but he hid its sound by rubbing his shoe across the floor at the same time.
"You did well by covering up that sound with your squeaky shoe," said Nasreddin. "But unfortunately you did not hide the smell."

The End. Charming.

But let me finish with the alarming intense gore and sadism found in every nook and cranny of fairy-tale-land. From the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm to the works of kindly Hans Christian Andersen, fairy tales are mostly nightmares depicting a cruel world inhabited by psychopaths.

Andersen's very first effort in the field, written in 1835, is called The Tinder Box. In this somewhat lengthy saga, our "hero" is a soldier returning home from the wars. He encounters a witch who promises him access to a fortune in silver and gold if he will only return to her a tinder box which once belonged to her grandmother. After loading himself down with treasure, he decides to keep the box; when the witch protests, he cuts off her head, leaving her body in the road.

He proceeds to blow his fortune on clothes, food and entertainment. Figuring out that the tinder box has magical properties, he uses it to visit a beautiful princess he's been lusting over but whose royal parents keep her locked up. They don't approve. The soldier goes on creating trouble and is brought to justice, but just as he's about to be hanged, he magically summons monsters to attack and kill the king and queen. With them dead and out of the way, he marries the princess. The End.


And the Grimm's stories? An unending litany of birds pecking out eyeballs, people being boiled, eaten, devoured by dogs - you name it. But my favorite "fairy tale" recorded by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm is also the shortest. I end this post by presenting it to you in its entirety. NOTE: you might want to sleep with the lights on after this. Or take some Xanex. Something.

Once upon a time there was a child who was willful, and would not do what her mother wished. For this reason God had no pleasure in her, and let her become ill and no doctor could do her any good, and in a short time she lay on her death-bed. When she had been lowered into her grave, and the earth was spread over her, all at once her arm came out again, and stretched upwards, and when they had put it in and spread fresh earth over it, it was all to no purppose, for the arm always came out again. Then the mother herself was obliged to go to the grave, and strike the arm with a rod, and when she had done that, it was drawn in, and then at last the child had rest beneath the ground.

Alrighty then! I'm not saying that might not make a compelling opera, mind you. In fact, don't you wish Richard Strauss had taken a stab at it? 

Longtime Faithful Readers will know that I've blogged about fairy tales in the past; specifically, about "Hansel and Gretel" when Virginia Opera staged the Humperdinck opera in 2011. Drawing from Bruno Bettelheim's landmark book The Uses of Enchantment: the Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, I discussed the subtext of the Grimm Bros. oeuvre and how folk-tales contribute to a child's development into a well-balanced, functioning adult. To do that, the stories must take us to places we'd rather not go, looking with unblinking eyes at ugliness and traumatic scenarios, at times with metaphorical significance.

That said, I have a theory about the origins of The Willful Child. Something tells me that, centuries ago, some beleaguered mother with a particularly bratty child made up this little tale as a sort of medieval "scared straight" tactic; the rough equivalent of saying "If you keep making that face it'll freeze that way".

Next week I'll tell you which stories I ended up choosing and why.

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