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GrimmFest: who would have guessed that a collection of fairy tales published 200 years ago would be the source for the most popular Canadian opera ever?

Twelve years after its premiere, Dean Burry's The Brother's Grimm, a 45-minute opera for pre-teens, is now the most-performed, best-travelled opera by a Canadian composer. Numerous performances across the country, two international in Nashville and Wales (with Brazil in the works), one recording, three orchestrations and many casts, The Brothers Grimm is still going strong. The Canadian Opera Company remounted it for its Ensemble Studio Tour last fall again, with a special party on its 500th performance on Dec. 7.

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Unlike much music for children from TV and movies, the score does not run on simple and catchy tunes and is not exactly "fun" as a child might define the word. Burry insists that, although he will never pander, he does try to be accessible since The Brothers Grimm will be many children's first opera. "The musical language is a little more complex than what they're usually given. But if it's so complicated that they can't get into it, then you've done great disservice not only to your own music, but also to the entire opera world. I want them to feel that opera is something to them, I want them to engage as an adult would when seeing an opera on stage."

In all these years, no child has ever told Burry that the music of his opera is too different from what they are accustomed to. This might well be because the children have less developed preconceptions of dissonance vs. consonance, or do not care too much about noticing the distinction between a solo instrument and an orchestration. Part of the explanation certainly is how well Grimm holds all its elements together and lets the viewer grab on to the story. As long as the music serves the story, and the story is what children will be most interested in. "you can throw a lot at the kids, musically." Burry elaborates: "If Rumpelstiltskin is a twisted little character, his music will be twisted little music. Traditionally, in opera history, music was most important and the heck with the story. For me, everything is about the story in opera. The music, the design and the staging all serve the story equally."

Was he ever tempted to create a musical idiom that could belong to the time in which the Brothers Grimm lived, a sort of a 196-century pastiche? "As a contemporary composer, I have to write music that is of now. Everything I do, if it's historically themed, I *try to flavor with the era that inspired the work. But I live in the 21 century, and my music will be of that century." A great thing about opera, he adds, is that it's a perfect vehicle to introduce contemporary languages--whether of music or visuals or stage directing--to a young audience. "If they understand the story, they'll go along with you."

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And although the story in The Brothers Grimm libretto is indeed easy for the children to follow, it is not naive but informed by a very contemporary interest in the nature of storytelling and authorship. It revolves around the making of three Grimm tales, Rapunzel; Little Red Cap and Rumpelstiltskin. "The brothers originally set out to catalogue the oral tradition of German folk stories, not to write children's literature," says Burry. "Due to the enormous popularity of the tales, they abandoned the scholarly rigor and started rewriting to make them better reads. So my opera is actually about the creative process as much as it is about the stories. "The brothers themselves he found akin to TV's Frasier brothers. "Jacob is very stern, Wilhelm trying to be a little bit more social. But they're both still stiff academics."

Burry's own children have seen the opera multiple times and do not seem to tire of it. His four-year-old ("usually one not much for sitting down") seemed fully drawn into the story at a dress rehearsal last fall. His six-year-old is an old fan. "She first saw it when she was two. Now, she often asks to go to sleep with the recording."
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Title Annotation:New Productions New Roles
Author:Lydia, Perovic
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Dec 22, 2012
Words:679
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