The Thirteenth Child

Music by Poul Ruders, libretto Becky and David Starobin

Premiere July 27, 2019, Santa Fe Opera

Santa Fe Opera production conducted by Paul Daniel, directed by Darko Tresnjak

The story

Spurred by his jealous cousin Drokan (Bradley Garvin, bass-baritone), regent of the Kingdom of Hauven, the deeply paranoid King Hjarne of Frohagord (David Leigh, bass) becomes convinced his 12 sons are plotting to usurp his throne. King Hjarne tells his pregnant wife, Queen Gertrude (Tamara Mumform, mezzo-soprano), that if the next child is a girl, he will kill his sons and leave his crown to his female heir.

To protect her children, the queen sends her sons to live in the forest. When Princess Lyra (Jessica Jones, soprano) is born, she sends her away, too. Eighteen years later, King Hjarne is dead and Lyra returns to the royal court to reunite with her mother, who is on her deathbed. The queen sends Lyra on a quest to find her brothers.

The composer

Poul Ruders was born in 1949 and is today considered one of the foremost Danish composers of the post-war generation. As a child, Ruders sang in the Copenhagen Boys Choir and later studied keyboard at the Danish National Academy of Music. In 1975, he earned a degree in organ from the Royal Danish Conservatory of Music where he studied composition with Ib Nørholm and Karl Aage Rasmussen. Ruders’ first compositions date from the mid-1960s. Ruders experienced an international breakthrough in the mid-1990s with Concerto in Pieces, which was commissioned by the BBC in celebration of the 300th anniversary of 17th-century English composer Henry Purcell’s death and the 50th anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s Young Persons’ Guide to the Orchestra. He has composed four previous operas: Tycho (1986) with libretto by Henrik Bjelke; The Handmaid’s Tale (2000) and Kafka’s Trial (2005), with librettist by Paul Bentley; and Selma Ježková (2007), with libretto by Henrik Engelbrecht, based on Lars von Trier’s 2000 film, Dancer in the Dark.

The historical context

For stage and screen, women have often been written as loving but largely supportive side characters, as objects of desire, or as femme fatales, determined to bring good men down. In fairytales, mother-figures are cold and cruel, while young women in peril tend to wait for rescue by unusually pure and fair-minded princes. That has changed in recent years, however, as certain mediums, especially television, have embraced a new age of female empowerment. The Thirteenth Child premieres at a time when feminism seems to be everywhere — from T-shirts proclaiming “This is what a feminist looks like” to the culture-rocking changes wrought by the #MeToo movement. Princess Lyra, the protagonist of The Thirteenth Child, takes her place among modern fictional heroines including Eleven from the Netflix series Stranger Things and Hermione of the Harry Potter series, as well some of the pluckier Brothers Grimm girls, such as Gretel, who saves her brother, Hansel, from the clutches of a candy-pushing witch.

The critics

Bridge Records released a recording of The Thirteenth Child in June, in advance of the opera’s July premiere at the Santa Fe Opera. Writing for Voix des Arts, Joseph Newsome lauds composer Poul Ruders and librettists Becky and David Starobin for a masterfully recorded work that is more than an academic exercise in contemporary composition to join words with music, but “a rejuvenation of the theatrical aesthetics that characterize the works that shaped the first four centuries of opera’s history.” Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford sings the role of Queen Gertrude, the same part she is creating for the Santa Fe premiere.

Scenic designer Alexander Dodge on his artistic inspiration

I was on a family vacation to my hometown of Meiringen, Switzerland, and hiked up to the medieval watch tower, Burg Resti, with my two young sons. The town had just recently done some restorations to the tower and constructed an inner staircase inside the tower, allowing visitors access the battlements. Looking down into the tower’s hollow abyss from the top with the winding staircase was simultaneously dizzying, mesmerizing, and ultimately inspiring. I did an initial design shortly afterwards and showed it to [the director] Darko [Tresnjak]. At first, I think he thought I had gone a bit mad. But as we talked about the story with the design in mind, as well as the amazing potential for video projection on top of it, we were quickly on our way. Darko and I are both big fans of Hitchcock movies. Vertigo (1958) is one of our favorites. We riffed on the bell tower scene where Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart race to the top. The scene is terrifying and thrilling in a way that only a Hitchcock movie can be. It seemed an appropriate visual metaphor for this story, and we ran with it.

Conductor Paul Daniel on Poul Ruder’s composition

What strikes me most is the way that Poul creates a perfect relationship between words and music. He creates a very direct and straightforward line with his orchestral accompaniment. You experience the richness of the stage characters and the storytelling, and you hear the kaleidoscope of musical ideas from the pit, and they fit each other like a glove! The Starobins have written a wonderful text, evocative and moving, that would stand as a play in its own right. But the whole synthesis of those words with Poul’s orchestral score adds dimension on dimension: Listen to how every sung phrase is accompanied by instrumentation that adds to the story.

Assistant costume designer Joseph Blaha on sartorial inspiration

Get ready to see a lot of velvet. There’s grandeur, with a lot of luxe textiles. It’s our take on the late medieval period; a lot of it is invoking these pre-Raphaelite paintings, and late-19th- and early-20th-century depictions of medieval life. The grandness of the royal court with the king and queen completely shifts to the children who have been sent away to the woods and have become hunters over the course of 18 years. That is a different, more earthbound world of linens, raw silks, fleeces, furs. The narrative tells us that one of the brothers has been making everyone’s clothes so some things are too big or too small as they were handed down. The chorus of townspeople will be in stark black robes.

Dramaturg Cori Ellison on mythology and the hero’s journey

Versions of this tale appear throughout international mythology. That points to the fact that it’s a story that runs deep in the DNA of the human race. One of the things that I think is most interesting about this particular quest is that it’s a female character that undertakes the hero’s journey. (Most of the time in mythological stories it’s a male.) The hero’s journey is an archetypal story that we find in ancient myths, coined by Joseph Campbell. He talked about particular steps in the hero’s journey — the call to adventure, the different thresholds of the journey, the trials, the friends and the foes in the journey, the moment of despair, and an ultimate triumph. I think we have all of those steps in Lyra’s adventure.


Soprano Jessica E. Jones (Princess Lyra) also originated the role of Chrisann Brennan in The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, by composer Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell, which premiered at the Santa Fe Opera in 2017.

Brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm took faculty positions at the University of Göttingen in 1830 but were dismissed in 1835 for political reasons. The brothers refused to pledge allegiance to King Ernest Augustus, and they, along with five other professors — known as the Göttingen Seven — were forced to leave the city.

Ravens play a central role in The Thirteenth Child. In Greek mythology, ravens are associated with Apollo, the god of prophecy. In the Book of Genesis, Noah releases a raven from the ark after the great flood to test whether the waters have receded. In some Native American traditions, the raven is the creator of the world as well as a trickster god.