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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  16. JOIN THE GREAT ILLUMINATI BROTHER HOOD TODAY AND LIVE A BETTER AND HAPPY LIFE. WELCOME TO THE GREAT TEMPLE OF RICHES,FAME AND POWERS. Are you a business,Man or woman, politician, musician,pastor,lawyer,actor,actress,banker, and you. want to be rich, powerful and be famous in life. You can achieve your dreams by being a member of the Great ILLUMINATI brother hood. With this all your dreams and heart desire can be fully accomplish, if you really want to be a member of the great ILLUMINATI brother hood, Note: newly recruited members are entitled with 600,000 US Dollars , A Golden Ring, that will protect and guild you from enemies, and a free visa to United State Of America . Please will do not share blood. Kindly what app us on +2348169193901 or email us on illuminatibrotherhood180@gmail.comJOIN THE GREAT ILLUMINATI BROTHER HOOD TODAY AND LIVE A BETTER AND HAPPY LIFE. WELCOME TO THE GREAT TEMPLE OF RICHES,FAME AND POWERS. Are you a business,Man or woman, politician, musician,pastor,lawyer,actor,actress,banker, and you. want to be rich, powerful and be famous in life. You can achieve your dreams by being a member of the Great ILLUMINATI brother hood. With this all your dreams and heart desire can be fully accomplish, if you really want to be a member of the great ILLUMINATI brother hood, Note: newly recruited members are entitled with 600,000 US Dollars , A Golden Ring, that will protect and guild you from enemies, and a free visa to United State Of America . Please will do not share blood. Kindly what app us on +2348169193901 or email us on illuminatibrotherhood180@gmail.com

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  17. Greetings to every one that is reading this testimony, i am giving testimony of how i become rich and famous today, i was deeply strangled up by poverty and i had no body to help me, and also i search for help from different corners but to no avail… i see people around me getting rich but to me i was so ashamed of my self so i met a man on my way he was very rich and he was a doctor so he told me something, that if i would like to join the illuminati brotherhood, and i think over it though out the day so the next day i looked up and i keep repeating what he said to me, and i make up my mind to join the illuminati, today i am so proud of myself, because i am a great man today, well know in the world, rich, famous so if you are also interested to join the illuminati, you are free to join, if you live in America it is free to join the illuminati brotherhood temple, you have to email: churchofdevilinitiationcenter@gmail.com call or text +15088192672 join the illuminati today and enjoy good life with you and your generation.

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  18. CONTACT MR Paul Smith call (+2349055346865 or WhatsApp him through this number +2349055346865 or email:illuminatiworldofsociety1@gmail.com Hello everyone I am mr charles adamson from uganda, I am giving a testimony on how I joined the illuminati brotherhood, I was trying to join this organization for so many years now,I was scammed by fake agent in south Africa and Nigeria,I was down,I could not feed my self and my family anymore and I tried to make money by all miss but all invail, I was afraid to contact any illuminati agent because they have eat my money,One day I across a post of someone giving a testimony, thanking a man called paul smith of being helping him to join the illuminati brotherhood, then I look at the man email and the phone number that was written there, it was a nigeria number I was afraid to contact him because a nigerian agent eat my 200,000 and go away with the money then I was very tired, confused and I decided to contact the person that was given the testimony and i called him and I communicated with him on phone calls before he started telling me his own story about when he wanted to join, he told me everything to do, then I made up my mind and called the agent called paul smith and he told me everything to do, and I was initiated, surprisely I was given my benefit of being a new member of the great illuminati brotherhood I was so happy,For those of you trying to join this organization this is your opportunity for you to join CONTACT MR paul smith call (+2349055346865 or WhatsApp him +2349055346865 or email:illuminatiworldofsociety1@gmail.com

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