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On a typical day in Kassel, Germany in the 1800s, the brothers Grimm are working together researching words to include in a dictionary. Brentano, who is a poet and scholar himself, interrupts them and sets them a task. He would like them to write a book for him of common tales, like the ones that people tell around a fire. Since the Grimm brothers do not have a background in writing stories, they ask their friends if they know of any tales.
Dortchen, a friend of the brothers with a crush on Wilhelm, suggests the first tale, one of love. She briefly describes a prince rescuing a long-haired princess from a tower owned by a witch. This is too short for the brothers to use, so they adapt it, lengthen it and embellish it into what we know today as the story of Rapunzel. They are very happy that they now have their very first story, but they realize that one story is not enough. Dortchen suggests that she find a lady from the market, Frau Viehmann, who knows the greatest of stories and will be able to help them.
Frau Viehmann tells them a tale of a girl named Little Red Cap who pays a visit to see her lovely grandmother, who lives in the middle of the woods and is not very well. Little Red Cap has been sent to take her some food. Along the way she meets a wolf who takes a shortcut and arrives at the grandmother’s house long before Little Red Cap. There he eats both the grandmother and (when she arrives) Little Red Cap. The brothers are horrified at this ending, and try to come up with a new one.
Colonel Krause, an old soldier who keeps falling asleep, tells them the third and final story, of a mysterious little man named Rumpelstiltskin. This story is of the miller’s daughter who is sent by her father to the king’s palace to spin straw into gold… something she cannot do (but must or else face death). A mysterious little man suddenly appears and offers to do the spinning for her, if she agrees to give him her first-born child. If she can guess his name, however, he will not take her child. Years later, when the miller’s daughter has a baby, Rumpelstiltskin comes to claim his reward. When the time comes to guess his name, she draws a blank. With a little bit of help, she finally guesses the right name, saving her baby and they all live happily ever after.
Just as the brothers are putting the final touches on these stories, Brentano comes in to tell them that he no longer wants a book of folk tales. But so many people had already heard about the book and wanted copies that the brothers decide to go ahead and publish the book themselves as The Brothers Grimm Fairytales.
(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