Guerilla Opera begins its 15th-anniversary celebration “Guerilla Underground” tonight with Deniz Khateri’s animated version of Marti Epstein’s Rumpelstiltskin. Originally commissioned in 2008 by the Guerillas, Epstein’s chamber opera made for a thoughtful and haunting online take on the Brothers Grimm’s folk tale.
In Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s 1812 Rumpelstilzchen, a miller grants his daughter to the king after deceitfully describing her ability to turn straw into gold. The title character, an imp with King Midas-like powers to turn anything he touches into gold, helps the daughter in return for her first-born child. When he returns several years later to claim his prize, Rumpelstilzchen gives the miller’s daughter, now queen, three days to guess his name. On the final day, after hearing Rumpelstilzchen sing, she guesses correctly and the imp dies.
Epstein transforms the Grimm’s story, seeking an explanation for the eponymous character’s actions where the original provides none. The libretto, written by Epstein and Greg Smucker, begins with the lines “she turns from me / he turns from me / everyone I meet turns from me / in fear and disgust.” This theme of familial—as well as societal—rejection and Othering echoes throughout, couching Rumpelstiltskin’s search for a child in his desperate desire for love. Through his remark, “no one ever loved me / I am too hideous to be loved,” Rumpelstiltskin finds similarities with the miller’s daughter; this quasi-love scene makes the ending all the more painful, but also provides one more reason—unrequited love—behind his quest for a child.
Epstein and Smucker later intimate that Rumpelstiltskin is the king’s son and, in a cyclical final scene, Rumpelstiltskin turns into the queen’s child instead of dying. The king puts the queen and her father to death, but allows the child-Rumpelstiltskin to live, foreshadowing another iteration of the story. And, while the miller’s daughter is unnamed in the Brothers Grimm’s version, Epstein and Smucker name her Gretchen, a nod to the similarities between this weaver and the character in Goethe’s Faust.
But most importantly, Epstein made the conscious decision to, as she reported in an interview about Rumpelstiltskin, “turn all the other gender aspects of the opera on [their] head[s].” She cast the title character as a high soprano and the miller as a countertenor; the king is the only traditional male-range voice. By refocusing Rumpelstiltskin as a tale of motherhood and the relationship between children and their (missing) mothers, Epstein offers a quasi-feminist reading.
Epstein’s evocative and fractured music fittingly accompanied the narrative. Alto saxophonist Philip Stäudlin, violinist Lilit Hartunian, cellist Stephen Marotto, and percussionist Mike Williams aptly realized the unusual scoring. Underlaid by short, fragmented instrumental lines, the orchestration carefully interweaves eerie percussive sounds. But with Epstein treating the saxophone as a string instrument, the ensemble blended together seamlessly, creating a unique soundworld throughout. She also incorporates a few leitmotifs, most notably an arpeggiated figure to resemble the spinning wheel. I was particularly impressed by the wide variety of textures conjured by the small group, a testament to the skills of both composer and performers.
All vocalists met the demands of Epstein’s unremitting score. Executive producer Aliana de la Guardia gave an excellent account of Rumpelstiltskin, her dynamic range successfully mirroring the character’s many moods. In particular, her quavering search for love gave Rumpelstiltskin necessary pathos. Brian Church played the king with bombast and bluster, astutely highlighting the implicit cruelty. Britt Brown (Gretchen) and Emily Thorner (the miller) also gave admirable interpretations.
Khateri’s animation set the scene with flair. Her shadow puppetry perfectly mixed poignant and chilling: Rumpelstiltskin resembled the Elephant Man and the king a vicious autocrat. But her artful backdrops showed the most skill. Via rich gold colors, the straw on Gretchen’s spinning wheel became stars and planets in the night sky, a ruptured umbilical cord, and the walls of the castle. And, echoing Epstein’s leitmotif, snake-like strands subtly connected scenes and characters, shifting between Gretchen’s hair, the letters of Rumpelstiltskin’s name, and their natural surroundings. In a particularly powerful moment at the end of the opera, Rumpelstiltskin’s face unspools, once more linking the lives and fates of Epstein’s enthralling characters.