Opera & Musical Theater

Fables and Fairy Tales in Opera

Opera is the ultimate example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Music, drama, poetry, dance, the visual arts . . . each is a rich, rewarding and fully engaging arts discipline on its own. Given the breadth of source material available, Eric Skelly discovers that many famous operas are based on fables and fairy tales.

Opera is the ultimate example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.  Music, drama, poetry, dance, the visual arts . . . each is a rich, rewarding and fully engaging arts discipline on its own.  United, these art forms together become elements of a single art form greater than any one of them, handing composers who set out to create an opera a seemingly inexhaustibly diverse supply of source material.   Composers have frequently turned to novels and poetry to supply them with opera-worthy plots, hence Carmen (from M?rrim?e’s novel), Faust (from Goethe’s poem), and The End of the Affair (based on the novel by Graham Greene), which saw its world premiere at HGO a few years ago.  The non-musical theater has been an equally prolific source for composers and librettists to mine, giving us The Barber of Seville (from the Beaumarchais comedy of the same name), Falstaff (primarily from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor) and Madame Butterfly (from the David Belasco play of the same name).  Even the visual arts have provided inspiration;  Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini is a particularly interesting work, depicting the creation of Cellini’s great bronze sculpture, Perseus.

Houston Grand Opera’s Hansel and Gretel
Photo by Brett Coomer

Not surprisingly, fairy-tales and fables make excellent operatic source material.  Composers from the Romantic and post-Romantic periods with a knack for a larger-than-life compositional style seem to do particularly well with operas based on the stories of The Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen and their like.
In the mid-18th-Century when choosing a subject for his next play, Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi turned to the world of Persian fairy-tales.  In particular, he chose a fable about a cold-hearted Chinese princess named Turandot.  Over a century-and-a-half later, when Giacomo Puccini was looking to “strike out on new paths” toward the end of his life, he turned to Gozzi’s dramatization of the tale of Turandot.   No less than ten other composers had previously  tried their hand at this most human of Gozzi’s fairy tales, the first appearing in 1810 by a composer named Blumenroeder.  Most of these have faded into obscurity, with the exception of Franco Busoni’s 1917 setting of the Gozzi tale.  Busoni’s version is still of interest in that it’s more faithful to its source material than Puccini’s.

Puccini and his librettists simplified Gozzi’s story considerably, but in doing so, they fleshed out Gozzi’s characters to a degree seldom found in operas based on fairy-tales and fables.  The best example of this is the character of Adelma.  This confidante of Turandot’s is a rather duplicitous woman who plots to have Calaf for herself.  But from Adelma’s back-story of aiding Calaf on the road to exile and falling in love with him, Puccini and his librettists created the heart-breakingly faithful, self-sacrificing Liu.

These days, those who are familiar with Gozzi and his fiabe (fairy-tales) are becoming fewer and further between.  Most of us don’t know Turandot in any form but Puccini’s opera.  What, then, of the well-known fairy-tales that we all grew up with?  As it turns out, they’re well represented in the operatic canon, though not necessarily in great numbers. 

The Grimm Brothers’ Hansel and Gretel have achieved operatic immortality as the subjects of a hugely popular opera by one Engelbert Humperdinck (the late-19th/early-20th-Century German composer, that is . . . not the mutton-chopped Vegas “King of Romance”).  Humperdinck’s Bayreuth apprenticeship assisting Richard Wagner prepare the world premiere of Parsifal heavily influenced the younger man’s own compositional style, resulting in a very Romantic score that has made Hansel and Gretel a holiday classic to this day.

Also drenched in Romanticism is Antonin Dvoø?k’s musically lush setting of Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.  Dvoø?k and his librettist adapted the fairy-tale by co-opting elements of Bohemian legend, turning Andersen’s sea-going mermaid into a water sprite in a Bohemian forest.  Otherwise, the story is essentially the same.

Igor Stravinsky chose Andersen’s The Nightingale as the subject of his first opera.  He completed the second and third acts five years after composing the first, and in the intervening years wrote The Firebird, Petroushka and The Rite of Spring.  As a result, The Nightingale is a bit uneven, but with flashes of brilliance that make it worthwhile.

Houston Grand Opera’s La Cenerentola
Photo by Brett Coomer

Cinderella shows up in the operatic canon as Rossini’s La Cenerentola.  Stripping the story of its magical, fairy-tale trappings, Rossini takes The Grimm Brothers’ Aschenputtel (the German name for Cinderella) and transforms her into Angelina, the decidedly Italianate and ultimately forgiving center of a typically Rossinian screwball comedy.

Beyond these operas, you have to look a little harder to find operas based on fairy-tales or fables.  Richard Strauss’ and Hugo von Hoffmansthal’s monumental fairy-tale opera, Die Frau ohne Schatten (“The Woman Without a Shadow”) does use a fairy-tale-like story to deliver its parable about selfless love.  However it’s not based on any established fairy-tale;  Frau is set to a completely original libretto by Hoffmansthal.

More recently, Philip Glass and Robert Moran co-composed an opera based on a lesser-known Grimm Brothers fairy-tale.  Houston Grand Opera produced the minimalist composers’ hypnotically fascinating adaptation of  The Juniper Tree at Miller Outdoor Theatre in May of 1986.   Moran later premiered his take on Beauty and the Beast with HGO.  Entitled Desert of Roses (1992), it played in repertory with Andr? Gr?try’s 18th-Century setting of the same tale, Zemire et Azor

So where are Snow White, Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty (no, ballet doesn’t count here)?!  Why don’t more composers flock to these well-known subjects?

Houston Grand Opera’s Hansel and Gretel
Photo by Brett Coomer

Maybe it’s because it’s difficult to draw three-dimensional characters from a fairy-tale, especially in a day and age in which audiences are expressing a decided taste for naturalistic stage acting.  Fairy-tale characters tend to be more symbolic than naturalistic.   Rusalka or The Little Mermaid is the longing for a soul-mate.  Hansel and Gretel embody the yearning for a loving, parental home environment.

Nevertheless, think of Turandot’s imperious passion, or Angelina’s virtuosic warm-hearted forgiveness.  In the hands of the right composer-librettist team, these fairy-tale characters are irresistible.  So, how ’bout it?!  Rumpelstiltskin, The Opera!  Any takers?