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I adore the simple folktale concerning the Starkind. This is the tale of the orphan girl who is blessed by stars, after she selflessly gives away all her possessions to imperiled beggars. As I was looking for more information regarding the story, I came across an opera with a similar title; Das Sternenkind. I later discovered that this opera had nothing to do with the Starkind story of which I was familiar. Instead, this story contrasts outer beauty with an inner state of ugliness. The titular child in this story fell to Earth as an infant. It was raised by a poor family who admired it for its incredible beauty. Unfortunately, the beautiful child is rotten to the core and ultimately comes to reject its mother who forsook her celestial position to wander the Earth looking for it. By the time the mother finds the child, she has lost her heavenly beauty and has the appearance of a common beggar. The story resolves only when the child loses his beauty and searches the world looking for the mother it rebuked.

This is the full text of the short story on which the opera was based. The following video is a Russian language movie that roughly follows the Oscar Wilde story. However, there are significant changes to the tale, after the mother is rebuked.

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Today, as a treat, I drove my son nearly two hours out into the middle of nowhere. The goal was to see Richard Jones staging of Hansel and Gretel for the Metropolitan Opera. This was not live by any means. Instead, it was a film of that production. The trip was nearly ruined due to my iphones directing us to a street of the same name in another town. This caused us to arrive fifteen minutes into the film, but I was determined to see this production. My son was less determined but mostly went along with the plan. What we saw was unexpected and mostly entertaining.

First, I must admit that Opera is not always a good choice for small children. This Opera was sung in English, but the voicing made it difficult to understand the words. I could read the subtitles flashing across the bottom of the screen, but my son did not have this benefit. Second, the contemporary and revisionist staging employed by contemporary, high-brow set designers can be confusing to children. This is an understatement. Hansel and Gretel’s home was a minimalist apartment splashed in shade’s of grey. An empty refrigerator was all that really evoked the hunger of the traditional story. The “woods” in which Hansel and Gretel became lost was yet another obvious room with woodland themed wallpaper and dark trim. Curiously, a very long table split the stage in half and it’s raison d’etre only became obvious during a dream sequence. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the Witch’s “House.” There was absolutely NO gingerbread house. Contemporary, avant garde, revisionist or not, there needs to be a gingerbread house. It’s just not the same without it. In it’s place, to really confuse matters was a floor to ceiling painting. It was nearly all red with lips and exposed teeth painted on it. This was essentially a wide open mouth through which a giant tongue came to protrude. On that tongue was a ridiculously large cake. This certainly can’t be making sense to any reader. However, the set was basically a wall with a giant mouth sticking out its tongue with a cake poised on it. Hansel and Gretel couldn’t help but notice this and began to devour the cake while someone off-stage complained about “nibbling” on her house. LOL. Truly not right. About the only thing that would make sense from a child’s perspective was the final “Witch’s Kitchen.” That was a properly constructed kitchen fit for a witch.

Finally, two things really made this production shine in the end. First, the characters were marvelous. The modern parents were a bore. However, the sandman and the “creep-tree” type creatures inhabiting the forest were fantastic. A group of chefs and a fish-headed butler that inhabited a dream sequence were stellar. The witch just stole the whole show. The witch was a gentleman in drag and possible in a fat suit. He was very Monty Python and gave the production the color it needed to end with a bang. Second, food or lack thereof was the central theme of this staging, and the last seen was a veritable food fight and/or food orgy. The characters were literally covered in food, fighting with food and spitting out food left and right. They were absolutely filthy and some of the food gags were revolting. Nevertheless, it was hysterically funny.

If one could see this production live, I would definitely recommend it. The film version is a toss-up. The presence of “making of” scenes interspersed between acts detracted from the magic and showed aspects of the production that would be of no interest to many children. It may be best to leave this for adults or older children who are more experienced with Opera stagings.

I have been looking for the quintessential Christmas movie or program that I could share with my son. We don’t watch broadcast or cable television, so we aren’t bothered with such trifling things as a “Go, Diego Go! Christmas.” God forbid such a program exists! Instead, we try as much as we can to limit our viewing to quality program that will both educate and entertain my son all the while contributing something of cultural value. After much thought, I chose Hansel and Gretel. It interests me in part, because it is based on traditional, German folktale. However, it is not the sort of thing that I would associate with Christmas. I only established that association after my trip to the Waldorf school. That trip got me to thinking about a stage performance that I had seen on television. It had either been an opera or a ballet and it was every bit as lush as a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream or the Nutcracker. I actually found that program on Amazon. It was an old opera staged with live singers. This was not the version that I settled on, though. Instead, I found a wonderful, stop-motion animation piece that was also based on the real Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1892 opera. My son took to this production immediately, even though the sound quality was somewhat muddled and song lyrics were difficult to understand. Nevertheless, the characters were very engaging, and my son strained to watch the entire show, though each of our attempts to watch it started out quite late in the evening. Without fail, my son fell asleep on three separate occasions right after the lovable sandman comes and sprinkles sand in the children’s eyes. We may revisit the movie for a fourth time on New Year’s Eve, if we find that we have nothing else to do.

Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel (1954)

I was entirely prepared not to like The Indian in the Cupboard, the 1995 movie featuring a toy that comes to life. I did not know what to expect, but I assumed it wouldn’t be more than mediocre at best. Instead, I was treated to a better than mediocre movie. While not great in any real sense, I liked the movie’s overall theme. The movie was less of a portrayal (and exploitation) of Native American culture, than a study on the dignity and value of individuals no matter how insignificant they may seem. Rather than fill the alloted time with titillating and meaningless action, the film portrayed the interior struggle of a boy who realizes that the diminutive man that comes to life has passed out of the realm of plaything to living, breathing human being with his own right to a self-directed life. I’m likely making the movie sound better than it actually was. However, the lesson is dramatized in a way that young children can understand, and I believe my son got something out of it. We watched the film on Thanksgiving, and he has been asking for what he calls “The Native American Under the Covers” several times now.

The Indian in the Cupboard

The Indian in the Cupboard

Granpa is an award winning, short children’s film adapted from a John Burningham book. The film is less plot oriented and more impression driven. The film revolves around a little girl who seemingly lives with her grandfather. The story tracks their relationship across seasons, as Granpa and the girl delight in one another’s company and the rich fantasy life they share. Quite late in the story, Granpa begins to decline and die. Despite the ending, the film remains buoyant and dreamy and the brief sadness gives way to renewed joy at the presence of grandpa’s subtle spirit. This was a great book to introduce my son to the concept of death and remembrance in a non-threatening and comforting way.

My son is at that age where he wants to see a “really, really scary” movie. It comes as no surprise to us, as we are huge horror movie fanatics. However, past experience tells us that even the most mild of scares will send my son right into my bed for a week. In fact, during the height of the Halloween goings on, my son was up at night complaining about a ghost in his room. We went through the ghost business before and were not eager to repeat it. It wasn’t so much the inconvenience of having a child hoping into bed with me at all hours of the night. Instead, things became downright unsettling as my son constantly remarked about the goings of the ghost as it allegedly went up and down or stairs and in and out our doors and so on. That was truly enough of that.

With all that said, we settled on Something Wicked This Way Comes as our “really, really scary” movie of choice. It had a few thrills and chills but ultimately caused my son to fall asleep partly out of boredom. I myself liked the movie and felt that this was a happy medium for my son’s horror viewing needs.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Something Wicked This Way Comes

While I was searching through the library for Halloween-oriented videos and DVDs, I came across an old VCR tape with the words “The Halloween Tree” scrawled on a piece of paper. The original label was gone. There was no indication on the tape as to what the VCR contained. It was entirely mysterious. I already had some Goosebumps type DVDs in hand. However, I have seen Goosebumps features on many occasions and they are decent yet fairly predictable and corny. I decided therefore to put one of the DVDs back and take a risk with The Halloween Tree. Boy, was I surprised. This is a great tale crafted by Ray Bradbury. It tells a very compelling life and death story using Bradbury’s own words, and it provides insight into the confluence of cultures that contributed to the modern Halloween. I love this video and may purchase a copy so that we can watch it every year.

The Halloween Tree

The Halloween Tree

I fondly recall mention of Johnny Appleseed back in my own childhood days. Over time, though, I forgot that Johnny Appleseed was actually a real person. Instead, I came to think of him as a Pecos Bill or John Bunyan type of character; more legend than history. One of my recent library finds was an old book on the man, and it was as revelatory as it was boring. It was boring in so far as the book was written in a style that was as dry as could be. It was completely matter of fact on the subject of a very bizarre and complex man. Though I wanted to regal my son with the biography of this colorful individual, I felt that I was torturing him with the over dull story book with very busy pictures. Fortunately, I came across Shelley Duvall’s Tall Tales & Legends video series. The series borders on the hokey, and it’s filled with puns (yawn). However, it is honestly a fun video to watch. Martin Short’s presentation really brought this complicated man to life, and my son was captivated by the man’s struggles with nonconformity and wanting to belong. It’s definitely worth half an hour or so of your life.

Steven Kellogg's Johnny Appleseed

Steven Kellogg's Johnny Appleseed

Shelley Duvall's Tall Tales & Legends

Shelley Duvall's Tall Tales & Legends