A Lot to Unpack: Guerilla Opera’s “Rumpelstiltskin”

Presented by Guerilla Opera 
Based on the tale by the Brothers Grimm
Composed by Marti Epstein
Libretto by Marti Epstein and Greg Smucker
Shadow puppetry animation and direction by Deniz Khateri
Conducted by Jeffrey Means
Featuring the Guerilla Opera Ensemble

Premiere date/Reviewed on January 7, 2022
Via Parma Live Stage

Rumpelstiltskin Studio Album & Release Party
January 14 at 7:30
An Online Event
Album is available on Navona Records

Review by Kitty Drexel

ONLINE — On January 7, Guerilla Opera held an online viewing party to premiere their short opera Rumpelstiltskin on Parma Live Stage. Rumpelstiltskin will be presented again at the album’s release party on January 14, 7:30 PM. The album will be available on Navona Records. 

Composer Marti Epstein and Guerilla Opera retell the Brothers Grimm Rumpelstiltskin story with some updates for their opera. Rumpelstiltskin (Aliana de la Guardia), a human man with magical abilities, is now portrayed as a sympathetic character according to Epstein’s “Note from the Composer” available on the Navona Records website. The opera explains Rumpelstiltskin’s desire for a child and elaborates on his single-minded obsession with obtaining one: unconditional love. 

Rumpelstiltskin further explains its characters motivations. The King (Brian Church) is greedy for spun gold at any cost. The Miller (Emily Thorner) isn’t just a fearful father who must sacrifice his daughter to keep his farm. Gretchen, the Miller’s talented daughter (Britt Brown), is a young woman caught between a sociopath and an obsessive-compulsive. There can be no happy ending.  

Opera as a genre is having a difficult time joining the 21st century. At every turn, its creators must drag the medium kicking and screaming into the modern age. Opera cites tradition as the reason why classism, homophobia, misogyny, racism, and, particular to this review, ableism persists in its works even though other art forms strive to reject bigotry. Tradition is peer pressure from dead people. Let tradition die. 

Guerilla Opera describes Rumpelstiltskin as “A magical and deformed little man (who) only wants one thing in life, unconditional love.” There is much to unpack here. 

Pain is Rumpelstiltskin’s raison d’être. His character goals and motivations sprout from his disabilities: disfigurement and ugliness. The other characters exist beyond their base traits. The King rules with a greedy, lascivious fist. The Miller has a job and a daughter. Even Gretchen gets an arc; she grows from traumatized indifference to loving her firstborn child. 

Rumpelstiltskin doesn’t get to be a fully realized person; he is the walking, talking embodiment of society’s rejection of the disability community. The disabled community is made up of real people. We are not metaphors.

Lest we forget, Rumpelstiltskin is also “magical.” Little People have been the focus of mythology, historical persecution, and ostracization for centuries. It isn’t empowering to call Little People magical. It’s inspiration porn

Lastly, the disabled community has a saying: “Nothing about us without us.” If one must keep a flat, mentally ill disabled character in their opera, then cast a disabled person in the role. Many disabled opera singers exist. Please cast them. 

Screen capture from the premiere. Shadow puppetry animation and direction by Deniz Khateri.

There are positive elements of Rumpelstiltskin. It’s clear that the creative team worked very hard on this production. There is the potential for brilliance in this work.

But, as a short woman with a physical disability that appears as a deformity to the perceptive eye (a former colleague once called it my “clubbed arm.”) and as a critic invested in strengthening my artistic community, I can’t speak on them because this opera’s glaring ableism affects every aspect of the production. All other positives and negatives pale in comparison, no matter how sincere one’s artistic intentions.  

Rumpelstiltskin runs for 55 minutes. It is sung in English with English subtitles in the bottom left corner. 

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