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In the spring of 1997, I sat in the boardroom at the Canadian Opera Company watching a presentation in 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. 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 the COC After School Opera 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 as General Director 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 Rumpelstiltskin 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 endeavoured to create a score both fresh and familiar – something to get those 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 plan twisted, rather like the devilish little imp.
Whether this is your first opera or you are a seasoned opera veteran, I hope the magic of The Brothers Grimm transports you to a time when fairy tales seemed so much closer to real life. I hope that it also reminds you that we must all hold onto some small part of ourselves that never should grow up.
– Dean Burry
(l – r) Laura Albino, Adam Luther, Alexander Hajek and Ileana Montalbetti the Canadian Opera Company's Xstrata Ensemble Studio School Tour production of The Brothers Grimm, 2009. Photo: Anand Maharaj © 2009