The Little Bear is an opera about what fairy tales reveal about the psychology of time, change, loss, and love. The story revolves around Sarah, a twelve year old girl whose parents and uncle tell her three fairy tales. Sarah and her family comment on each story as it goes, sometimes divining quite different morals. The first story is Little Red Riding Hood which begins humorously but quickly becomes quite dark before being rescued by a raucous ending. Sarah wonders what happens after the happily ever after, and while her father, William, tries to deflect, her uncle launches into the story of Rumplestiltskin which, unfortunately, also quickly changes from funny to foreboding. Tired, Sarah asks for one more story. Her father demurs, but Sarah insists, and William tells a quiet, shadow puppet version of Beauty and the Beast, while Sarah falls asleep.
In an epilog, Sarah, now thirty years old, sings a lullaby to her own baby, telling a fantastical fairy tale version of her life’s story with music from all three stories mingling.
When I was a child, one of my reading obsessions was Andrew Lang’s series of color Fairy Books. At an early age, I sensed that the stories swirled with primal desires and fears. The monsters and princesses and many characters in the stories resonated with the colors of my world and echoed the fierceness, the togetherness, the honor, the humor, the caustic post-traumatic stress, and the radiant love of my own family.
When I was a little older, I realized that one reason we keep rereading and reframing these stories is that they can bring us back to our own early times when we construct our primal emotional narratives. In bright primary colors fairytales explain things obliquely, offering us templates for our imaginations. Wild young love? Check. Good and Evil? Check. Deep personal bonds? Check. Fear of separation? Check. Enormous physical and emotional danger? Subtle traps? Everywhere.
And now, now my own children keep asking for stories. Made up stories, true stories, stories about previous generations, princes and princesses and happy kitties—there is never enough. My wife is the master story-teller and I love it. And our children revel not just in the wildness of the telling, but also in the connection it fosters between us.
As I look outwards at our wonderfully re-invigorated era of new operas, I notice that there are not very many works being written about or for children and families. Over the past few months, I’ve realized some of the reasons why this is so: it is indeed tricky and delicate bringing the intensely bright world of childhood stories into operatic drama. It is difficult to know what best captures the stark, strong colors and keen craziness of being a child—or a parent for that matter.
I wasn’t sure how to begin. I didn’t want to write just for children, but I also didn’t want to avoid musical languages that may evoke a certain childlike aura. Though I have deep respect for the art of Disney fairytales, it didn’t seem quite honest of me to write in anything like that style. And I didn’t want to modernize fairy-tale opera precedents, but I didn’t want to avoid them either. In fact, it has become clear to me only gradually that one of the challenges of writing Little Bear is finding a way around an ever-present, almost-zen paradox of trying not to avoid anything as I write.
So instead focussing on aversions that can too easily paralyze creativity, I have been trying to continually renew a more positive aesthetic. One positive answer I found is the incorporation of flamboyantly non-Western music styles into the actual storytelling portions of the plot. For me these seem to mirror the bright colors of the original stories: The Little Red Riding Hood scene presented here uses Middle Eastern drumming, the Rumplestiltskin will use West African bell patterns, and Beauty and the Beast will be centered around repetitive Indonesian cycles. More generally, and perhaps more importantly, another positive answer to the challenge of writing a fairy tale opera has been the pursuit of a strategy which I like to imagine the creators of Bugs Bunny or Spongebob must enjoy: writing for children but being silly on an adult level as well—amusing oneself at the same time. This, I hope, can help me find a voice that effectively echoes both my own and my children’s love of stories.
Grace Bernard as Sarah
David Castillo as William
Todd Strange as Jacob
Justine Aronson as Dorothy
With wild Up
Conducted by Paolo Bortolameolli