Composers and librettists have long looked to fairy tales for inspiration and material. When Lori Laitman was commissioned by the Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech to write a work for classical singers, musical theater performers, and children, she reached out to poet, author, and librettist Dana Gioia. The pair then created The Three Feathers, which premiered in 2014 and has its West Coast debut at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts on Sept. 8 and 10 courtesy of Solo Opera, which is undertaking its largest and most ambitious production to date.
Based on a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm that follows Princess Dora (soprano Shawnette Sulker) as she enters an enchanted underworld ruled by the Frog King (bass Kirk Eichelberger), the 85-minute family-friendly chamber opera includes six other adult soloists and, under the artistic direction of Valérie Sainte-Agathe, the prestigious San Francisco Girls Chorus, who will perform the children’s roles of frogs, rats, and bats in the underworld. And with a 20-piece orchestra led by Alexander Katsman, The Three Feathers promises to be a musical romp with more than one message: the power of women, belief in yourself, and finding the real gifts in life.
“This is a fairy tale that is both archetypal and unfamiliar,” said Gioia. “It’s about an old king who has to pick an heir. In the original Grimm story, he has three sons; our version has three daughters. One daughter is very domineering, one is extravagant, and the youngest is a bookworm who no one takes seriously. He then says he has the perfect solution, [and for that] I’ve written a good aria, ‘The Treasure Song,’ which is a patter song [about] his box with three magic feathers.”
Gioia, who has served as poet laureate of California and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, went on to say that psychologist “Bruno Bettelheim would have a field day with the upper- and underworld [of this story] — the conscious and the subconscious. You suddenly have a comic opera that’s going on aboveground and a mysterious, magical one underground. [Having] different types of comedy is one of the things that makes this opera magical. The lyrics should be interesting; they shouldn’t be dopey.”
The Three Feathers has already had 10 productions, some with a piano reduction in lieu of a chamber orchestra, and has been seen on the East Coast and even in Singapore, where, Gioia asserts, it was the first opera composed by a woman that was ever presented in the country. It’s also the fourth opera libretto Gioia has written, with others including Nosferatu, with Alva Henderson (2004), and Haunted, a dance opera, with Paul Salerni (2019). The librettist likens The Three Feathers to Mozart’s iconic The Magic Flute.
“I wanted to write an opera that parents and kids could experience together and also write something theatrical. That’s the repertory gap. It’s a fairy-tale opera in the spirit of The Magic Flute, so that was our model — minus the masonic symbolism [and instead] filled by an eerie underworld, which is a different sort of symbolic language — ours. Lori felt that writing the underworld scenes allowed her to do things orchestrally she’d never done before.
“We had high tech at the Virginia Tech show,” Gioia recalled, “like a Robert Lepage production. I think it’s heroic that Solo Opera is mounting this in its complete form. [Director and Solo Opera founder] Sylvia Amorino is a miracle of nature — which is [what’s] required to produce independent opera.”
As for his process, Gioia said that he told Laitman he wanted to devise a plot for which he knew he could write good lyrics. “I’d done translations of the Brothers Grimm from years ago, so we did a scenario. I broke it into scenes [and] talked about how many characters there would be. For me, it’s important to think of things as a physical process — who’s onstage, who’s offstage.
“I can’t write words until I know where everyone is,” Gioia added. “We sent that to Virginia Tech, and they loved it. Lori began thinking about how she was going to describe these things. I said, ‘Let me write,’ and because I usually start with arias, I told her, ‘You can handle the plot.’ But words have to come first.
“In an opera, there’s thousands and thousands of words,” Gioia continued. “So the first thing a librettist does is create story and characters. As you’re going into it, [the composer] might say, ‘I need four more lines’ or ‘Can we trim this?’ But it begins with words. I don’t want to hold the composer up for a year while I write the libretto, so [in this case] I wrote three scenes and three arias, and I was one step ahead of [Laitman] in terms of the next scene. Once it was about 90 percent done, we brought in a director.”
With regard to audience response, Gioia pointed out that he doesn’t “want to control the audience reaction but wants them to be so wrapped up in the opera at the end that they wake, as if from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and ponder what happened. I believe that great art casts a spell. It puts you in a trance, which allows the wholeness of humanity to come alive during this enchantment.”