The old stories (by Dominic Kimberlin)

As night falls, shadows breed between the trees. The firelight dances around the clearing as darkness swells and blooms. With every flicker of the fire, the shadows scuttle back and forth, and our eyes are drawn further into the gloom. Out of these dark places, thick with rich and fertile soil, stories can grow.

My previous opera with composer Vahan Salorian was Boys of Paradise. I’ve worked with Vahan consistently for over a decade after we started writing together in high school. Since then we went our separate ways to opposite ends of the UK in a classic pincer movement, intending to gain cultural control over both halves of the country simultaneously. For BoP, Vahan knew exactly where he wanted the story to be set and how it would end, but left the overall shape of the story up to me. At the time, I was reading a lot of Old English poetry and was fascinated by the phoenix myth, particularly
the anonymous translation of Lactantius’ verse, De Ave Phoenice. I believe we were both very invested in the story because of our individual connections.

The old stories have their roots deep in our collective unconsciousness. If we trace them back, following their familiar themes of family, shelter, and blood, we might feel something close to the fear which our ancestors knew very well. It is the terror of uncertainty, of an unpredictable and hostile landscape, and of the Other. We huddle together with our kindred flesh, afraid of what the night might bring, and hope against hope that we will be spared. Our songs and stories act as a ward against the
ever-present dangers and bind us closer together, but when times are hard and the self-preservation instinct awakes, even bonds of blood may break. The ancient terror has not gone from the world. It lies just beneath the surface. Those that stray too far from the well-worn paths will find that terror waiting for them. It has never left us.

The best part of adapting old stories is the process of discovering this fear. You’re looking for the real shape of it, the living, breathing form of the tale, which can never die so long as our species is alive to tell it. When you find it, your world can be transformed. It’s the point where a story stops being distant and gone, becoming something present and alive. These stories are so deeply engrained within us that when we truly feel them, it’s like finding the script to a play you forgot you were in. The sky opens up and the eye of a great beast peers down. In these moments we are one, paralysed with fear, the world aglow with possibilities.

My journey with The Opera Story began in December 2016 when I first met with Hamish MacKay. We walked around Edinburgh Christmas Market and he bought me a mulled wine. Suffice to say, Hamish shares that same love for the old stories and the power they have over us, as anyone who saw The Opera Story’s previous production, Snow, would know. After that meeting, the initial thought we settled on was an adaptation of The Three Little Pigs, but the idea just kept on evolving as we discussed it. Somehow Goldilocks ended up in there, which is when the story really took flight.

Throughout the writing process, I regularly discussed ideas with Hamish, Vahan and eventually Director and Designer Pedro Ribeiro. The final form of this story is something that I could never have imagined by myself, which is almost everything that I want from a story. It has been a truly collaborative process.

Where the trees grow closest, the shadows are the blackest, and so it is with people. Where we gather, our forms overlap, and darkness ferments. Stories can be dangerous when they are used by predators to mask their intentions. Words can be nothing more than pretty lights above a set of hidden jaws…

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