September 6, 2015

My new children's opera: tricky, tricky, tricky

I like every aspect of my job with Virginia Opera, but for me the most fulfilling assignment is that of creating short operas for the state-wide tours of our Emerging Artist young professionals. Since 2006, I've been privileged to write words and music for a number of original educational operas, including:
Till Eulenspiegel (15th century woodcut)


  • History Alive! A Telling of Virginia History (2006)
  • Tales From the Brothers Grimm (2007)
  • The Adventures of Pinocchio's Sister (2008) This is a "pastiche" opera, with an original libretto but incorporating standard operatic music by Handel, Mozart, Rossini and others
  • The Empress and the Nightingale (2014)
  • The Princess and the Pea (2014)
Now the latest show is going into rehearsals for the Fall, 2015 tour: A Trickster Trilogy. I thought the topic of the Trickster, a character common to every culture throughout human history, would provide an opportunity to explore some unfamiliar but fun stories.

What's a "trickster"? It's a character who breaks societal rules to get his way; a joker, a prankster, a rebel; someone who relies on his wits instead of violence to defeat anyone standing in his way. In the opera world, Don Giovanni and Mephistopheles are classic tricksters. But tricksters abound in every form of story-telling, including movies and TV in the modern era. Here are some notable latter-day tricksters:
  • The Joker (as in, the Batman character; and yes, in some versions he isn't averse to violence)
  • Bugs Bunny
  • The title character in the Jim Carrey movie The Mask
  • Fred Sanford, of the sitcom Sanford and Son
  • Ernest T. Bass, the troublemaker from The Andy Griffith Show
  • Bart Simpson of The Simpsons
  • The wily Ben from ABC's island drama Lost
I found so many likely tricksters in literature that, rather than devoting 45 minutes to any single one, I opted to write three short vignettes. Here's some background information on each, with a bit of commentary on my strategies in adapting them for and opera.

Nasreddin (photo courtesy of Dennis Jarvis)
1. TOM SAWYER. Mark Twain's all-American boy is likely the most familiar to the population at large, though I doubt if the children in our touring demographic (K-5, or kindergarten through 5th grade) will have read the novel. Be that as it may, I couldn't resist having a go at the episode in which Tom comes into his own as a classic trickster: getting his friends to paint his Aunt Polly's fence. If it's been a while since you've read Twain, click here for the text of the pertinent chapter, "The glorious whitewasher" 

My challenge here involved casting in that my options were very limited. The Fall 2015 Emerging Artist tour consists of a baritone, a mezzo and a soprano. That's it. As we read in the passage cited above, Tom tricks a bunch of boys to do the work. Clearly, I preferred for Tom to be a male, though as you'll see below I don't mind employing trouser roles at times. My solution was to replace Sawyer's male buddies with the familiar character of Becky Thatcher and her friend Nellie. Otherwise, the adaptation is quite faithful to Twain.

2. NASREDDIN HODJA. This character was new to me, and may be to you as well. Nasreddin (pronounced "Nahz-red-DEEN") is a legendary figure, likely based on a real historical figure, a 13th-century resident of Turkey. This link takes you to a website with a collection of stories about him preceded by an introduction. Read through them and you'll quickly see that as "literature" they don't aim very high. A lot of them are pretty much at the level of jokes you might have heard in a Henny Youngman routine: short, with a setup and a punchline. "The Robe", found at the link above, is a great example.

Nasreddin is often depicted as a village judge, a settler of disputes between neighbors and townspeople. His judgements often take an ironic turn, supporting his street cred as a trickster. The story I chose is one of these tales. Your thumbnail synopsis:

A beggar is hoping for a handout from a restaurant. When the cook accuses her (again, a woman in my version due to casting needs) of stealing food, she protests that she was merely smelling it. The cook demands payment, declaring that one must pay even to smell her food. When the beggar is unable to pay, the cook hauls her to Nasreddin, where she lodges her complaint. In the end, Nasreddin, who is wise to the cook's inhumanity, finds the beggar guilty of smelling the food but then offers to pay the cook himself. He jingles a few coins, then informs the cook that he has paid for the smell of food with the sound of money.

This ruling, unsatisfactory to the cook but delighting the reader (or the opera audience, I hope), reminds me of the Old Testament story of King Solomon's ruling about a stolen baby related in I Kings 3: 16-28. When Solomon, acting as community judge like Nasreddin, is faced with two women each claiming to be the baby's mother, he famously orders the baby divided in two with a sword. This, of course, prompts the real mother to reveal herself. So, as weird as this sounds, King Solomon turns out to be an authentic trickster! Who knew, right?

In my opera, I elected to make Nasreddin a speaking role; only the Beggar and Cook sing. This is because this Trickster is primarily a comedian; as such, I wanted him and his ironic sense of humor to stand apart from the two women in the greatest contrast possible. My ideal interpreters of the role would be either Jerry Stiller or Peter Falk. That's the over-the-top style I'm going for.

3. Till Eulenspiegel.  Here's a character familiar to all classical musicians and patrons of the symphony, thanks to Richard Strauss's inimitable symphonic poem, "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks" Once again, we're dealing with a figure who likely was based on a real person (as described in the Encyclopedia Britannica) from medieval times and has since attained mythological status thanks to a large collection of stories. As with Nasreddin, these stories are decidedly not for kids! Till's "adventures" are full of raunchy sex and scatalogical humor, which is a fancy way of saying "lots of poop jokes". Poop is practically a character in its own right in Till's world.

So 99% of the Eulenspiegel stories were immediately disqualified from consideration as fodder for children's opera. However, I was happy to stumble on a G-rated example. This tale is basically a re-telling of "The Emperor's New Clothes", but has the advantage of being less tiresomely familiar. Or maybe "Emperor's New Clothes" is a re-telling of the Eulenspiegel story - who knows?

In any case, in this tale, a king has commissioned the German trickster to paint a portrait. Till warns the king that his art is so delicate that only true aristocrats of noble birth can see his paintings; to peasants, they're invisible. When he's done "painting", he reveals a blank canvas to the king, but not before collecting a sack of jewels in payment first. Of course, the king has no choice but to praise the "beautiful painting".

Even though virtually no one (other than the performers) will hear or appreciate it, I couldn't resist giving the title character a theme amounting to a sly paraphrase of the opening of the Strauss tone poem. Here's that famous motif, heard in solo horn:


In my little musical farce, all mentions of Till, in addition to his entrance music and, naturally, his aria, feature this theme, which simply alters the rhythm of the original:


My fingers are crossed that at least one adult in the audience - a teacher, a principal, a parent, will hear my little musical joke and smile in recognition.

This is the show with the trouser role; Till is portrayed by the mezzo-soprano. 

If you, Faithful Reader, reside in Virginia, especially Tidewater, Greater Richmond or the Washington DC suburbs, and would like a performance of A Trickster Trilogy at your child's school or for your civic or community group, that can happen! Just contact Virginia Opera's Education Department and they'll set you right up on the Fall tour.

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