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From the Director's Chair: Darko Tresnjak on "The Thirteenth Child"

By Darko Tresnjak


From the Director’s Chair: Darko Tresnjak on “The Thirteenth Child”

3 Inspirations


Working on the world premiere of The Thirteenth Child, I was struck by the similarities between our opera and Shakespeare’s great romance The Winter’s Tale, written in 1611. So many similarities. Unhinged, delusional kings who threaten their children and their kingdoms. Pregnant queens who have to protect their families and their realms. Daughters, sent into exile, braving the mysteries of their origins. Ghostly visitations of queen mothers. Even the settings of The Winter’s Tale and The Thirteenth Child are similar in their progression — the movement from austere court life to wilderness and back.

I have directed The Winter’s Tale three times. And I love working on The Thirteenth Child. Theatrical romances — with their focus on families that are torn asunder, strong heroines and their perilous journeys, and magic — are very satisfying and rewarding.

“There may be in a cup
A spider steep’d, and one may, drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
Is not infected, but if one present
The abhorr’d ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
With violent hefts. I have drunk
And seen the spider.”

— King Leontes, in the throes of madness.

From Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale


Another inspiration for our production of The Thirteenth Child is the 1897 Edwin Austin Abbey painting, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and the Lady Anne. Our costume designer, Rita Ryack, introduced me to this painting and the moment I saw it, I thought: “That’s it! That’s our opera.”

The painting shows Richard III making a pass at Lady Anne at the funeral of her husband. Something very similar happens in our opera, when Drokan lusts after Queen Gertrude at her husband’s funeral.

Most importantly, I was struck by the sheer volume, the weight, of Lady Anne’s dress and the ominous figures surrounding her. The pressure of being put on display, of grieving in public, of being so encumbered.

In The Thirteenth Child, Queen Gertrude dies soon after her husband’s funeral. When I looked at that Abbey painting, I thought that whatever energy a woman like Queen Gertrude had left inside of her — given all the trials that she had endured — an event like that state funeral would finish her off. So we based that part of the opera, the funeral and the aftermath, entirely on the Abbey painting and adapted the royal insignia.

I read that Edwin Austin Abbey was an American Pre-Raphaelite painter, or as close as America got to having one. I know that Pre-Raphaelites are not very popular right now, but I find their compositions very theatrical, very operatic, very imaginative, and have been inspired by their paintings for many productions.

A scene from Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale directed by Darko Tresnjak

A scene from Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale directed by Darko Tresnjak

Christian VII of Denmark

Christian VII of Denmark by Louis Michel van Loo

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and the Lady Anneby Edwin Austin Abbey

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and the Lady Anneby Edwin Austin Abbey


I have directed thirty productions of Shakespeare plays and about thirty operas. As a result, I spent a great deal of time researching royal families. Contemplating what it is to be a king. And why, throughout history, so many of them — like King Hjarne in our opera — fall apart under pressure.

For starters, it is not a job that one chooses. And so many born to it just don’t have the fortitude. They are encouraged to marry young and have many children. And the women they marry are often foreigners and even younger. So, on one hand, you are told that you are chosen by God and that you answer to God alone. On the other, you are an overwhelmed teenager, with a new spouse who is a stranger and who barely speaks your language, and there are all those children on the way. So that is how I envision the family history of our King Hjarne, Queen Gertrude, and their thirteen children.

Our composer, Poul Ruders, is Danish. So, just out of curiosity, I started researching the royal family of Denmark. Christian VII was proclaimed king in 1766. He was sixteen years old. He married his fifteen-year-old cousin, Caroline Matilda. She was not told that he had serious mental problems and was prone to hallucinations and self-mutilation. The court physician — who sounds a lot like the conniving regent Drokan in our opera — pretty much ruled the country. The family sounds like a great subject for an opera.

—Darko Tresnjak

The Thirteenth Child receives its world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera on July 27 and runs until August 21, 2019. English conductor Paul Daniel, making his Santa Fe Opera debut, leads a talented young cast that includes American soprano and former Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Jessica E. Jones (Princess Lyra) in her Santa Fe Opera debut, American mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford (Queen Gertrude) in her Santa Fe Opera debut, American tenor and former Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Joshua Dennis (Prince Frederic), American bass-baritone Bradley Garvin in his Santa Fe Opera debut, and American bass and former Santa Fe Opera Apprentice David Leigh, also in his company debut. Susanne Sheston serves as Chorus Master.

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