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"The Thirteenth Child": Ear candy with chile peppers

By Poul Ruders, Becky and David Starobin


The Creative Team behind The Thirteenth Child share their process and insights on our upcoming world premiere

Poul Ruders, Composer

“Becky Starobin said to me: You have written four operas, your fifth opera should be a fantasy or fairy-tale opera. I agreed because I’m a great admirer of Harry Potter, especially the films. In the fantasy genre, the possibilities are limitless. It’s an explosion of imagination and everything is possible. You can just go wild with the score.

So I started to plow my way through the Brothers Grimm. In a way, that’s a wonderful name for those two collectors of folk tales because the stories are all quite grim, though they have been sanitized over the years. I stumbled across one of the lesser known stories called The Twelve Brothers and thought it had huge potential for being molded in all sorts of directions. I wrote my first synopsis and emailed it to Becky. She looked it over and completely rearranged it. Title-wise, The Twelve Brothers sounded a bit pedestrian so I said, why not call it The Thirteenth Child, which is far more alluring? That was the beginning of the opera.

The Thirteenth Child is not an opera based on the Grimm story; rather, it is suggested by the story. The first act spans 18 years from the birth of our main character, Princess Lyra, through the death of both her father, King Hjarne and later of her mother, Queen Gertrude. The second act spans at least seven years. Lyra’s brothers are under an evil spell that has turned them into ravens. If Lyra utters as much as a single word, her brothers will not transform back into human beings.

I have no idea how to describe music in words, but I have this metaphor about what is in store when listening to The Thirteenth Child: It is ear candy with … chile peppers … and you better believe it!”

Becky & David Starobin, Librettists

“For the past 32 years we have both been fortunate to share a close personal and professional relationship with Poul Ruders. Becky is Poul’s personal representative and David has played, conducted and recorded dozens of Poul’s scores. We are family, as the expression goes. Family is what our two-act, fairy-tale opera focuses on – a family in crisis, suffering privations brought on by jealousy, mental illness, and separation. It’s all set in a not-quite natural world, a magical land where flowers have transformative power and birds seem human.

Writing the libretto was a field day for us. The hallmark of a Ruders score is its broad emotional and stylistic range. In Poul’s music one finds terror-filled passages living side by side with the sunny and serene. We encouraged Poul’s love of contrast, his penchant for the Gothic, and his gift for composing lyrical and uplifting music, including lots of colorful, physical images with which he could go to town. And arias! The story cried out for them at key junctures such as the first act’s finale, “Oh, Mother,” spotlighting our heroine Princess Lyra, the thirteenth child.

In spite of the story’s shadowy world, at the end of the day we were not quite ready to succumb to darkness. The opera concludes with a ray of light and hope, sung by the entire ensemble.”

Martin Adams, Child

Darko Tresnjak, Director

“What initially struck me about The Thirteenth Child is that every moment in the tight, suspenseful libretto is essential. We are plunged into the dizzying, fearsome story from the opening measure. What follows are seven swift scenes, each one set in a new location, each one introducing a new crisis.

The set is based on a tower that Alexander Dodge, our set designer, saw as a child. There is a bird’s eye view of the tower, the sensation

of staring down the stairwell. It made me think of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, especially the tower scene at the end and the famous dolly zoom effect.

I think of this upended environment as the interior of King Hjarne’s addled, paranoid head. The nightmare into which he plunges his family and his kingdom. The set will give us the opportunity, through the use of projection mapping, to swiftly move from one location to another and to create moments of terror and of wonder.”

The Thirteenth Child opens on Saturday, July 27 and runs through Wednesday, August 21, 2019.

The Thirteenth Child is a co-production with Odense Symphony Orchestra. Production underwriting support is generously provided by David Henry Jacobs. Additional support is provided by Gene & Jean Stark National Endowment for the Arts.

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