Fairy tales on the stage: between fantasy and reality
Freedom is not the only central theme in the new season: if you look closely, you’ll see that fairy tales and fantasy stories are also pretty prominent in this season’s programming. From popular and more obscure operas to performances for a young audience and the main ballet classics – fairy tales have inspired artists, writers and musicians for centuries.
Author: Laura Roling
Fairy tales – in the broadest sense of the term – are as old as mankind itself; long before stories were first committed to paper, people were telling each other tales about the fairy world where animals could talk, strange creatures were roaming the earth or there was magic in the air. The fantasy world offers us a chance to lose ourselves in myth and legend, an opportunity to escape our everyday limitations, just for a little while, and make the impossible possible.
Still, the reality is never that far away in a fairy tale: our fantasies usually give something away about the world we’re trying to leave behind. Little Red Riding Hood Rood, for instance, doesn’t listen to her mother and sees everything go pear-shaped. Going off the beaten path inevitably leads to trouble is what the moral of the story seems to be. And a mythical creature such as a mermaid might be eager to live in a world that isn’t her own and be prepared to make sacrifices for it, but the human world will always be ruthless (except perhaps in a Disney movie). And Sleeping Beauty? She gets her happily ever after, but she does have to sleep for a century before she’s awakened by the kiss of a prince. She has no control whatsoever. She’s a passive character in her own story.
Perhaps it’s the friction between fantasy and reality that makes fairy tales and fantasy stories so appealing, not just to read, but also to bring to the stage. Below is a brief synopsis of each of the fairy tales that are scheduled to be performed in the season 2022-2023.
Königskinder uses the fantasy world to paint a painfully vivid picture of the cruelty of mankind. A goose girl and the king’s son fall in love despite their class difference. They realise that what genuinely matters, what makes a person truly regal, has nothing to do with their background or outward appearance.
The residents of Hellastadt don’t agree: they want a king to lead them and they send a delegation to a witch living in the forest. The witch foretells that the first person, be it man or woman, to enter the town gates when the bells toll at noon the following day must be their next king. When the bells toll at midday, the goose girl steps through the gates. The townspeople categorically reject her: she doesn’t at all look like a queen so it’s impossible that she’s their destined ruler. Banished by the townspeople, the goose girl and the king’s son wander through nature until they die a tragic death.
Königskinder isn’t a tale that was handed down from generation to generation. Rather, it’s a fairy-tale opera: a fantasy story that was conceived and penned by an artist. The libretto of Königskinder was written by Ernst Rosmer, the pen name of Elsa Bernstein-Porges, a Jewish writer and dramatist. Bernstein originally wrote Königskinder as a play and asked composer Engelbert Humperdinck to create stage music for it. This version premiered in 1897, after which Humperdinck convinced Bernstein that her libretto was perfectly suited to an opera.
Little did Elsa Bernstein know in 1897 that, later in life, she’d personally fall victim to the cruelty portrayed in Königskinder. She was deported to Theresienstadt Ghetto in 1942. She survived the war thanks to her ‘Prominent-A’ status: her father Heinrich Porges was a conductor and a champion of Wagner as well as the illegitimate son of composer Franz Liszt. Also, Bernstein’s daughter was married to the son of playwright Gerhart Hauptmann, who continued to garner popularity under the National Socialist regime.
‘The fantasy world offers us a chance to lose ourselves in myth and legend’
The Sleeping Beauty
The Sleeping Beauty is one of the most popular ballets by choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky. Spanning about four hours, it’s one of the longest ballets ever and the role of Princess Aurora is coveted by ballerinas the world over for its technically challenging dance steps.
The ballet focuses on the fight between good (the lilac fairy) and evil (Carabosse, the evil fairy), particularly at the party to celebrate Princess Aurora’s birth and at her 16th birthday party. In the last act, when the prince has kissed Princess Aurora awake and the good has prevailed, this conflict has been resolved. That’s when Petipa and Tchaikovsky resort to grand-grander-grandest: the royal wedding is attended by a broad array of guests, including fairy tale characters such as Puss in Boots and Little Red Riding Hood. The Sleeping Beauty tells a comforting story that ends in an opulent and festive happily ever after.
THE GIRL, THE HUNTER AND THE WOLF
When Little Red Riding Hood sets off for her sickly grandmother’s house in the forest with a basket full of goodies, her mother warns her to stay strictly on the path. But when she sees some wildflowers, she strays to pick them and meets the sly wolf, who tells her that there are even prettier flowers deeper into the woods. While she picks flowers, the wolf goes to the grandmother’s house and gains entry by pretending to be her granddaughter. He swallows the grandmother whole. He then disguises himself as the grandmother and waits for the girl in her bed. When Little Red Riding Hood arrives, he eats her too. Eventually, a passing hunter comes to the rescue by cutting open the wolf’s belly. Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother emerge unharmed. They fill the wolf’s body with stones. When the wolf awakens, the stones cause him to collapse and die. This is a fairy tale with a clear message: don’t stray from the beaten path; if you do, you’ll get into trouble.
In their new youth opera, composer Vasco Mendonça, librettist Gonçalo M. Tavares and stage director Inne Goris tell the story from a fresh new perspective. Inne Goris: “We all know the wolf from various fairy tales: he’s consistently portrayed as the bad guy; he’s a hungry fellow who always operates alone. But if you read up on wolves, you find out that they can go without food for up to ten days, that they typically live in packs and that a lone wolf tends to be a female.” Put briefly: the sly wolf is up for some rehabilitation. With their opera, Mendonça and Tavares want to tell youngsters that ‘different’ is not necessarily ‘dangerous’, ‘scary’ or ‘bad’.
Strictly speaking, Operetta Land is not a fairy tale. It’s not based on a fairy tale either, but it does explicitly put on the table the power of the human fantasy: the character of the ‘Verzinner’ (lit. Fantasist) dreams up a world full of operetta elements and an occasional hint of reality. Eventually, he is forced to leave Operetta Land: unfortunately, people can’t live in a fantasy world forever, no matter how much they want to or how beautiful this world may seem.
Puccini based his opera Turandot on the fairy-tale play of the same name by Carlo Gozzi, which was first performed in 1762. For his part, Gozzi had based the play on one of the seven stories in the epic Haft Peykar, a work by 12th-century Persian poet Nizami. Gozzi wrote the opera in the commedia dell’arte style as part of a campaign in his literary war against the rising realism in theatre. As a result, his work can hardly be described as realistic: his oriental Princess Turandot is an aloof and cruel character who asks her suitors to solve impossible riddles. If they can’t solve them, they are publicly executed in the harshest of ways. Prince Calaf, who wants to make the princess his at any cost, manages to solve the riddles, forcing her to marry him. The story is a tale of cruelty, obsession and power. It’s difficult to understand on an emotional level: what makes Turandot so appealing to Calaf? Is it her independence? The mystery that surrounds her? Is the fairy tale about obsession and ownership?
In his adaptation of Gozzi’s fairy tale, Puccini created a bit of trouble for himself: he introduced Liù, an extremely loveable and kind-hearted slave girl who lets herself be tortured to death by Turandot out of love and sacrifice for Prince Calaf. This greatly endears Liù to the audience and makes the main characters of Turandot and Calaf seem cold and detached. Yet, Puccini wanted to end the opera with a sweeping love scene between Turandot and Calaf. Puccini died before he could finish the opera. His contemporary and colleague Franco Alfano was asked to finish it, but the ending he came up with feels rather unfulfilling. That’s why stage director Barrie Kosky has decided to go with an alternative, unexpected ending in his version come December.
‘Still, reality is never that far away in a fairy tale’
Swan Lake is the second fairy-tale ballet by Marius Petipa and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in this season’s programming. The ballet is based on a German fairy tale and shows the audience the weakness of the flesh, the consequences of fatal decisions and the vulnerability of happiness.
Young Prince Siegfried is celebrating his birthday when his mother tells him that he must choose a bride. Siegfried is upset and leaves the festivities. He ends up at a lake with a flock of swans. The prettiest one of them all, Odette, wears a crown. She’s the victim of a spell cast by the evil Rothbart and transforms into a princess in the moonlight. Siegfried and Odette fall in love on the spot. When it looks like the spell on Odette will be broken by the prince’s true love, Rothbart has a trick up his sleeve: at Siegfried and Odette’s engagement party, he has transformed his own daughter Odile to look like Odette. With her seductive and intense movements, she manages to enchant Prince Siegfried and get him to present her as his fiancée. As soon as Siegfried realises his mistake, he hurries back to the lake where Odette is.
Different endings exist, ranging from the greatest tragedy to a happily ever after. In Rudi van Dantzig’s version for DNO, Prince Siegfried drowns himself in despair. In the final scene, his body is found by his best friend.
Mermaids, sirens and water nymphs (undines) are common in fairy tales, myths and fantasy stories. The best known of them all is probably The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, which tells a tragic tale that can only be described as having a happy ending from a Christian perspective. The Little Mermaid falls in love with a human prince when she saves him from drowning. Her love for him is so strong that she wants to become human at all costs so she can be with him. A sea witch is willing to help her by selling her a potion that gives her legs in exchange for her beautiful voice. Her legs will allow her to dance like no human has ever danced before. The drawback is that she will constantly feel as if she’s walking on sharp knives. She will obtain a truly human immortal soul only if she wins the love of the prince and marries him. The Little Mermaid will die if the prince decides to marry someone else. The Little Mermaid swims up to the surface and drinks the potion. The prince asks her to dance for him many times because he’s mesmerised by her. Still, he decides to marry a princess from a neighbouring kingdom. On their wedding night, the Little Mermaid is given one last chance to save her own life: if she kills the prince, she’ll become a mermaid once more. She refuses and dies. But because of her selflessness, she’s offered the opportunity to earn an immortal soul.
Antonín Dvořák’s opera Rusalka, with a libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil, largely tells the same story, but without the Christian redemption theme. Unlike in Andersen’s fairy tale, the love between Rusalka and the prince is mutual, even though the prince lets himself be seduced by a foreign princess because he’s frustrated with Rusalka’s quirks and muteness.
Similar to the mermaid in Andersen’s fairy tale, Rusalka is given the chance to save her life by killing the prince and, like Andersen’s mermaid, she refuses. Her tragic fate is to become a will-o’-the-wisp, an atmospheric ghost light living in the depths of the lake, emerging only to lure humans to their deaths.
Rusalka’s prince regrets his actions and comes to the lake to seek her out. He begs her to kiss him, even knowing her kiss means death. The prince doesn’t care: he can’t live without her. They kiss and the prince makes the ultimate sacrifice for having her love: he dies. There’s no redemption for Rusalka herself. This makes Dvořák’s opera much more brutal and ruthless than The Little Mermaid. Just like Königskinder and Swan Lake, it painfully exposes mankind’s selfishness and cruelty.
While it can be argued that the fairy tales that are being staged by Dutch National Opera & Ballet this season transport us to a fantasy world, they definitely won’t let us escape reality.