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Bring the Kids: 'Rumpelstiltskin' Gets a Makeover in 'Riddle Me'

Free children's opera at UCSC re-imagines the classic fairy tale with a message of friendship, acceptance of difference, self-sacrifice and loyalty.

It’s a sad state of affairs when hiking through our majestic redwoods and building sandcastles in the middle of winter can inspire a refrain of “borrrrring.” I suppose rich people even get tired of Veuve Clicquot and caviar, eventually.

So I’m always game for something different (and cheap) to do with my spoiled brats over the weekend. Bonus points for an activity that doesn’t involve hot dogs or tokens and exposes them to some type of culture.

This weekend, will premier a free children’s opera titled, Riddle Me, promoted as a performance for both the young and young at heart. The show is loosely based on the 1812 Brothers Grimm story of Rumpelstiltskin.

Singers from the UCSC Voice Department, including choir soloists and a small female ensemble, will join a chamber orchestra to perform composer Allen Shearer’s original score at the UCSC Music Center Recital Hall at 11 a.m.  and 1 p.m. on Sunday.

If you remember your fairy tales, in Rumpelstiltskin, a poor miller boasts that his daughter can spin straw into gold. Hearing about her talents, the greedy king shuts her in a tower with a spinning wheel and demands that she turns the straw into gold or be killed. When she has nearly given up hope, an evil dwarf (Rumpelstiltskin) rescues her by performing the task in return for the promise of her firstborn child.

The young girl blissfully marries the rich king, and all is well until her first child is born. The dwarf returns to claim his payment and rejects offers of her new-found wealth in substitution. Rumpelstiltskin provides her one chance out of the pact: If she can guess his name, she can keep her child. Ultimately, she does figure it out and gets her happily-ever-after ending.

Librettist Claudia Stevens has re-imagined the story with a modern-day consciousness around topics such as greed, oppression, discrimination and false values. Significant changes have been made to the characters to allow the audience to muse on the messages without the clichés of traditional folk tales distracting them from the problems at play.

For example, the boastful father is recast as a competitive mother, who seeks to expand herself by exploiting her daughter’s accomplishments. The bullying king is portrayed manifestly as the bully he is and becomes the real villain of the narrative.

In Stevens' adaptation, Rumpelstilskin, or “Riddle,” is less iniquitous and more mythical, representing a mysterious creature from ancient times come to help nudge humanity toward a much-needed attitude adjustment. Riddle reminds us about the meaning of friendship, acceptance of difference, self-sacrifice and loyalty.

“Directing the children’s opera is such a blessing, because it lets UCSC give back to the community in a fun way for families,” explained Brian Staufenbiel, director of opera programs. “The kids love getting swept away in the fantasy of shows like Hansel and Gretel and Riddle Me, but they also walk away with important lessons. Riddle Me helps kids understand that although people make big mistakes, they can learn from their choices and ultimately be forgiven.”

Last year ,Staufenbiel brought Many Moons to local audiences, a one-act opera based on the children's book of the same name by James Thurber. UCSC hopes to introduce the next generation to classical opera by removing some of the barriers that traditionally send kids running for the nearest arcade.

For starters, Riddle Me is sung entirely in English, rather than the typical Italian or German that can, well, seem like a foreign language to young ears. To cater to shorter attention spans, Riddle Me runs at 45 minutes instead of two-plus hours. Both shows are purposely matinees so the little ones won’t be up and insane past bedtime.

Best of all, it’s a free program for families and the perfect excuse for your little princess to model her newest Belle or Jasmine costume. Personally I have every intention of forcing my boys into shirts with buttons.

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