The Brothers Grimm: Prelude article by Dean Burry

The Brothers Grimm, An Opera For the (Young) People

Prelude (Canadian Opera Company), September, 2000

  Woe to the composer who takes lightly the task of writing an opera for young audiences, but more importantly, woe to the arts organization that takes lightly the task of reaching those audiences. After having worked with children for the past three years in the Esso Kids After-school Opera Program, I have caught a glimpse of what it is that children want and need in opera. Trying to remember what it was like to be four feet tall is a funny thing. It is not so much a matter of turning back the years, but more so a matter of peeling back the layers of cynicism and disbelief we develop with maturity to find a core that kept us curious and accepting. Writing an opera for young audiences is not an easy affair. It is serious fun.

  For almost a year now, I have been working on a new opera, The Brothers Grimm, to be performed by the COC's Ensemble Studio as part of their annual school tour. There are many reasons for an opera company to devote resources to education, and every department from marketing to publicity and fund-raising can list its own specific gains, but beyond all this, the educational programs must provide a genuine arts experience, change attitudes and attract new opera fans. Workshops, dress rehearsal tickets and building tours are one thing. However, if you really want to bring opera to young people, you must bring young people their own operas. Hopefully, The Brothers Grimm will be just what they're looking for.

  So how do you approach the composition of a new opera to be performed by adults for children? First of all, it is important to remember to talk to children and not at them. Children are very aware of whether they're being involved or ordered. It comes down to the age-old question of how much the intended audience should affect the creation of a new work.

  Obviously, an artist with any integrity will realize that the first person to satisfy is himself, or else he is never creating from a sincere place. That said, any composer who has no regard for the requirements of the audience risks alienation. For me, writing is all about communication, and if no one listens or understands, the goal has been missed. This consideration is doubly important with young audiences. It is a privilege, as a writer, to work with children for you will never receive a more honest critique. Adult audiences may give you a lukewarm curtain call, but children may poke, prod, fight and fire spitballs throughout your favourite aria. It can be brutal. It can be inspirational.

  Instead of writing a "kiddie" opera, then, I try to approach my task as if writing opera for any audience new to the art form. Show them and engaging plot that keeps moving and speaks directly to the audience. Hit them with some exciting and evocative music. The audience should always be wondering what is going to happen next, even if it is a familiar story (The Brothers Grimm gets behind the origins of Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Rumpelstiltskin and reveals the lives of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.) If you lose this curiosity, you've lost your connection and you have to work that much harder to get it back. These are qualities most people would like to see in an opera, or any other art form, for that matter.

  Humour is always a great way of captivating young audiences and keeping them involved in what is happening on the stage. This doesn't mean that everything has to be slapstick with references to bodily functions, but certainly some of the best productions are the ones that make us both cry and laugh, a mirror of real life. This physical involvement goes a long way in holding a new audience, especially children, who are so willing to honestly show how they are feeling.

  The canon of children's opera seems to be growing at a faster rate these days. Children's literature, music and theatre have been well represented for quite a while now, and as more opera companies feel the effects of shifting government priorities, the importance of capturing new audiences cannot be overestimated. It is all about ensuring the future of companies, the art form, and the enrichment of our youth; aspirations worth pursuing.

  The bottom line is that kids bring openness and a curiosity to theatre. It is up to us whether they grow up to be opera lovers and supporters of people who prefer to keep their prejudice against opera. Is writing opera for children a task to be taken lightly? Not at all.

-Dean Burry

Composer Notes from the CD recording of The Brothers Grimm

  In the spring of 1997, I sat in the boardroom at the Canadian Opera Company watching a presentation on the upcoming season's production of Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel. I was intrigued by the story I was hearing: not of those house-munching youngsters, but of the two brothers who had first written that tale down. How was it that our civilization knew so much about those fairy-tales and so little about Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm? After all, if not for the Grimms, the stories of Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Little Red Cap, Rumpelstiltskin and hundreds of others might have been lost with the decline of the oral story-telling tradition. The magic, mystery and whimsy were too much for a composer to ignore. There had been countless adaptations of the tales but very little material on the lives of the actual brothers. Besides, I couldn't resist the challenge of writing an opera with two librarians as its valiant heroes. This would be a fantastic foundation for a new COC opera. Unfortunately, at the time, I was not a composer-in-residence - I was selling tickets in the box office.

Jump ahead three years. My box office days were behind me and I was running an after-school program and seemingly giving lectures to every student in the city for the COC's education department. A notice came out that the company was looking for a millennium project and as General Manager Richard Bradshaw was familiar with my work, I was asked to find a libretto for a new opera for young audiences. It quickly became evident that those two German brothers would soon have their say.

  In writing the libretto for The Brothers Grimm, I attempted to combine the well-known fairy tales of Rapunzel, Little Red Cap and Rumpelstilskin with the less familiar history of the real brothers and Germany in the first decade of the 19th century. In the same way, the music is a blend of simple, singable melodies and more contemporary tonalities and rhythms. As this work would be the first new opera experienced by many young people, I endevoured to create a score both fresh and familiar - something both to get the toes tapping and the brain thinking. I strongly believe that no matter how intellectually satisfying a composition is, it should always play on the heart as well - call me a hopeless romantic.

  Each of the tales uses a different musical language. Rapunzel, a love story, draws out long, enraptured melodies. Little Red Cap dances with the skipping rhythms of an eager young girl and Rumpelstiltskin's clashes are just plain twisted, rather like the devilish little imp. The addition of a chamber ensemble (violin, clarinet and double bass) to the original piano score has allowed me not only to heighten all of these elements but also to enhance the "German" flavour of the work.

-Dean Burry