Parlando: The COC Blog

11/14/2012

Interview with Dean Burry, Creator and Composer of The Brothers Grimm

Our Ensemble Studio is on tour across Ontario this month performing Hansel and Gretel and The Brothers Grimm. But did you know that The Brothers Grimm is celebrating its 500th performance next month during GrimmFest?

The popular children's opera was created by Dean Burry, a composer born and raised in Newfoundland. Holding a master's degree in composition, Burry started his career at the Canadian Opera Company as a Ticket Services representative. He quickly found his way to the Education department where he started the COC’s popular After School Opera Program in 1997 – a program he still runs today. In 1999, Burry was commissioned to create The Brothers Grimm and it debuted two years later. The opera was a hit and has been performed across Canada, the US and had its European debut last spring.

 

What first interested you in The Brothers Grimm?

In 1997 I was working in the box office when the education co-ordinator did a staff chat on Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, which was programmed for the following season. The opera chat was interesting, but what I found most fascinating was that while everyone knew the Grimm's fairy tales almost no one knew who the Grimm Brothers were.

Why did you choose Rapunzel, Little Red Cap and Rumpelstiltskin for the opera? What about those three stories stuck with you?

I debated for a long time which of the over 600 stories I was going to use.  A part of me really wanted to introduce unknown tales as a way of showing the breadth of the publication, but then I realized that for many young people, this would be their first opera. Having something familiar to latch onto would be a real advantage, especially as I introduced the new ideas of the Grimms history and a contemporary musical language. The children would already bring something to the performance. In addition, the three stories are thematically different: - Rapunzel - love; Little Red Cap - a morality tale; Rumpelstiltskin - twisted!


The Brothers Grimm is really funny! How hard is it to stay operatic but still include jokes that children in the audience will understand?

Comedy is one fantastic tool to keep young people engaged in a performance. Comedy isn't easy to write, especially operatic comedy that is connected to the timing of the music. To me, "operatic" does not equate "serious". Opera is storytelling, plain and simple, and comedy and lightness are hugely important. That being said, children of different ages definitely appreciate different kinds of humour. A balance of the slapstick (so loved by 4-5 year-olds) with pun and double entendre (appreciated by older children) is required to keep everyone laughing.

What is your favourite part about producing opera for a younger audience?

Young people still view opera with all the wonder that we as adults should aspire to regain. When it is working, opera still holds that magic and there is no guile in the response of a young person. Love it or hate it, they will never try to impress someone with their response and I find that honesty shockingly refreshing. 

What are some of the best questions you’ve heard children ask after watching the opera?

I always get a kick out of questions from younger kids who are just beginning to grasp the difference between fantasy and reality. "Are you really married?" they will ask the performers who played Rapunzel and the Prince. "Can I have some of the gold?" they will ask the performer who played the Miller's daughter in Rumpelstiltskin. Again, it ties in to how young people view the arts and how as adults, we tend to lose that sense of wonder. Of course, children aspire to be like adults, but in many ways, I think we should all aspire to achieve the reverse.


You can watch The Brothers Grimm at GrimmFest on December 7 and 8. Tickets are $25 for adults and $15 for children. To learn more about Dean Burry, read his composer biography and attend his free Opera Talk on December 6 at the North York Library.

Photo: (top) Dean Burry; (bottom) Lindsay Barrett, Cameron McPhail, Dean Burry, Owen McCausland, Claire de Sévigné and Neil Craighead in the Canadian Opera Company's production of The Brothers Grimm, 2012, photo by Chris Hutcheson.

Posted by Danielle D'Ornellas / in Xstrata Ensemble Studio School Tour / comments (1) / permalink

Kenneth Baker (11/20/2012 9:23:00 PM)
This is so thrilling that "The Brothers Grimm" will have been performed over 500 times in December. It is such a marvellous work in so many ways. A Canadian composer (I wish I could remember which one)once said that the problem with so many Canadian World Premieres is that the premiere is unfortunately so often the derniere. Thank goodness that wasn't the case with "The Brothers Grimm". I admit to a little bit of a bias here, since I performed the work more than 125 times as Brentano and Rumplestiltskin. Congratulations to Dean, the COC, and thanks to the sponsors over the years, most recently Xstrata.

Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001