Not all men are fit to be king. Violent and paranoid, King Hjarne of The Thirteenth Child might just fall into the category.
“History is full of kings who weren’t cut out for it. Either through weak constitutions or their upbringing, they buckle under,” said Darko Tresnjak, director of The Thirteenth Child, an opera co-commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera. Its world premiere is on Saturday, July 27.
Composed by Poul Ruders, with a libretto by Becky and David Starobin, The Thirteenth Child was inspired by the 19th-century Brothers Grimm fairy tale, The Twelve Brothers. The production is conducted by Paul Daniel. It is the Starobins’ first libretto and portrays an archetypal hero’s journey — or in this case, a heroine’s journey. Princess Lyra is the thirteenth child of the title, born to King Hjarne and his wife, Queen Gertrude. The women of the story must stand strong in the face of the king’s madness, which Tresnjak said is a theme that recurs throughout fairy tales, as well as in Shakespeare.
“Often, there were queens doing the work of trying to hold it all together, hold appearances, trying to protect the kingdom. I’ve thought about that a great deal with this opera,” Tresnjak said. “The queen knows she’s under duress and things are deteriorating at an alarming rate.” Tresnjak added that certain pressures might have contributed to the king’s stress: He married young and went on to have a huge family.
“Lyra is born into a family that has quite a bit of turmoil,” said soprano Jessica E. Jones, who plays Lyra. Though an extensive backstory isn’t outlined in the libretto, Jones has thought quite a bit about what drives her character. She assumes that Lyra grew up in a convent, perhaps receiving occasional letters from her mother, always believing that she was loved. Lyra reunites with her mother at her father’s funeral, when the queen is on her deathbed.
“Her dying wish is that she go find her brothers. Lyra is dumbfounded and horrified that she not only didn’t know her mother and father for her whole life, but she didn’t even know she had brothers. She goes into the woods by herself to search for them,” Jones said.
The newness of The Thirteenth Child extends beyond the fact that it’s a premiere. As a fantasy with a multilayered female protagonist, the opera fits neatly into the current American cultural zeitgeist in which feminism is receiving renewed attention. Princess Lyra isn’t waiting to be rescued by a white knight — but she is not so iconoclastic that she doesn’t need her family’s support. The Starobins have penned a deeply psychological adventure that is rife with power grabs, family dysfunction, and magic. What’s more, each person involved in the production was able to invent their part from the ground up, from the way the singers interpret their characters to the look of the scenic design and costumes.
“It’s a wonderful thing to feel free to create from scratch,” Tresnjak said. Of directing well-known operas with long production histories, he said that he hates to use the word “baggage” — “but you could call it baggage because it’s human nature to compare and contrast one’s approach with previous interpretations. We’re the first ones doing this opera, so we’re looking at it with fresh eyes — because those are the only eyes we could look at it with.”
The Serbian-born director won a 2014 Tony Award for directing the Broadway musical-comedy A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. He makes his debut at the Santa Fe Opera with The Thirteenth Child.
Ruders selected the Grimm’s fairy tale, and Becky Starobin adapted it into a dramatic story. She played with characters and subplots to make the piece work on the opera stage. The next step was turning the prose synopsis into a libretto while Ruders created the music. “From the word go, I started composing in the back of my mind. I’m always composing, and not necessarily on paper,” he said. “Becky, David, and I conferred via email, and many a draft was hauled back and forth through cyberspace.”
Ruders and the Starobins met in 1986 and have worked together ever since. The Starobins run Bridge Music, known for its recordings of 20th- and 21st-century classical repertoire. Ruders is a prolific composer who has written several operas, including The Handmaid’s Tale in 2000 (libretto by Paul Bentley, based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel).
In The Thirteenth Child, Lyra finds her brothers in the forest, but their reunion takes a tragic turn when she accidentally puts a curse on them. A reversal of it requires Lyra to make a huge sacrifice. “If she can do that, her brothers will be returned,” said Jones.
There are moments of peril as well as moments of love and safety in the opera, and all ends almost happily ever after. The music for The Thirteenth Child is suspenseful and haunting, evocative of the grandeur of fairy tales, without being cartoonish or childlike. Often, Ruders uses vocal tone to indicate that a character is not in his right mind, such as when King Hjarne launches into falsetto when engaged in paranoid thinking.
Ruders said that an opera’s score should always serve the story by lifting the text into a higher sphere. “There’s no other art form that can ‘do’ emotions as powerfully as music. I can’t possibly describe the music in words, but I can say that the score is — hopefully — an alluring ride through tonal and atonal landscapes, ripe with real tunes, arias, and high-voltage symphonic interludes.”
Despite knowing Ruders for more than 30 years, the Starobins said they could not have predicted what kind of music he would write. “We wanted to lead him to the edge of our story, where he could take over and imagine his story in sound,” said David Starobin. “He did it. He came up with all of the necessary elements for a great opera. There are big arias that give the singers a chance to really shine, and there are deep orchestral moments that show the inner workings of the minds of these characters.” ◀
▼ The Thirteenth Child
▼ Conducted by Paul Daniel and directed by Darko Tresnjak
▼ Santa Fe Opera, 301 Opera Drive
▼ 8:30 p.m. July 27; 8 p.m. July 31, Aug. 9, 14, and 21
▼ Tickets are $35-$312; 505-986-5900, santafeopera.org