Classical Notes

Rumpelstiltskin goes to the opera

Aliana de la Guardia (left) sings the title role in ''Rumpelstiltskin,'' and Leslie Ann Leytham is Gretchen. Aliana de la Guardia (left) sings the title role in ''Rumpelstiltskin,'' and Leslie Ann Leytham is Gretchen. (Anthony Scibilia)
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / May 29, 2009
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The grim and ambiguous tale of Rumpelstiltskin was not composer Marti Epstein's first choice for an operatic subject. She can remember reading the story as a child and not quite understanding a few things about it and its strange title character, a dwarf who helps a girl spin straw into gold, then demands her first-born child in return.

"I remember being disturbed by things that didn't make sense with that story," Epstein says by phone. "Why would he want to take this baby? How did he get into the castle in the first place? How did he know she was in there?"

Yet when Guerilla Opera asked her in 2006 to write an opera, the fairy tale had fit the company's requirements, such as the space required and the number of singers. And a conversation with a friend, the writer Allegra Goodman, had steered Epstein toward what she calls "the back story of fairy tales": their hidden subtexts and motivations. She realized that she could settle her questions about the story by creating her own version of it.

The Guerilla Opera production of "Rumpelstiltskin" opened on Wednesday and continues through Monday. The piece is written for four singers and an unusual chamber ensemble of violin, cello, saxophone, and percussion. Epstein, who teaches at Berklee School of Music, wrote the libretto herself after what she estimates were six or seven drafts. "I got together all of my writer friends and got them to help me do it myself. I had a lot of eyes look at it before I actually set it to music."

In the original fairy tale, the girl's father, a commoner wishing to aggrandize himself, boasts to the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The king locks her in his castle and three times demands that she spin gold or die. Three times the strange dwarf appears and does so for her; yet each time he exacts a greater price from her, finally demanding her firstborn child. Years later, after the girl has married the king and given birth to a child, Rumpelstiltskin returns to claim his prize. But he offers to let the queen keep the child if she can guess his name, and gives her three days. When on the last day she does so, thanks to an intrepid messenger, the creature either flies into a rage or dies, depending on which account you read.

Epstein says that she read about 10 different versions of the story, and "in every single version, Rumpelstiltskin is this sort of peripheral and evil character. And I decided I wanted to make him the sympathetic main character." To amplify his motivation, she gave the character - who is sung by a coloratura soprano - a long solo aria in the first scene, where Rumpelstiltskin "explains that he's always wanted to be loved, and he's so hideously deformed that no one will even look at him. He has this weird idea that if he could somehow get a child, that child would love him unconditionally."

She also departs from the traditional story by forging a bond between the dwarf and the girl, whom she names Gretchen after the protagonist in Schubert's great spinning-wheel song, "Gretchen am Spinnrade." "They have a conversation about how neither of them has a mother," Epstein explains. "Rumpelstiltskin doesn't know his father, Gretchen thinks her father betrayed her. They sort of become friends."

"Rumpelstiltskin" is Epstein's first opera. She writes music that has the feel of suspension in space, fragile and almost static, and not qualities that immediately translate to opera's inherently dramatic form. Realizing this, Epstein searched for a model for her piece; she found it in Debussy's beautiful and mysterious "Pelléas et Mélisande," which she calls one of her favorite pieces of music. It's a work in which characters talk past each other, the talk obscures the characters' motives, and the music spins a web of uncertain allusions.

"There's a lot of stasis in it," Epstein says. "It's a piece where a lot happens but you're not necessarily aware in the moment that a lot is happening." She also increased the dramatic tension by making the scenes shorter as the opera goes on, as if the action were rushing towards its conclusion.

Epstein finished composing the piece last summer, and immediately put it aside to work on another project. When she returned to it about a month ago, she was reminded "exactly how much work I did. Normally I don't compose eight or nine hours a day, but last summer I did."

She doesn't yet have the distance from the opera to evaluate it objectively. Nevertheless, "It's such an incredible accomplishment for me considering I was outside of my comfort zone at every step of the way. I always tell my students that's a very beneficial thing for an artist to do, and practicing what I preach was difficult. But I'm glad I did it."

Tonight, tomorrow, and Monday at the Zack Box Theater, Boston Conservatory; 201-952-6735,

Mendelssohn in Braintree
Tomorrow night's concert by the Braintree Choral Society's celebrates milestones: the 85th season of the chorus and the 50th of Scituate's Choral Art Society, which also performs. And there is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47), whose monumental oratorio "St. Paul" is the sole work on the concert, which takes place at the recently opened Thayer Academy Center for the Arts. Among the soloists is baritone Robert Honeysucker.

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