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Story and Libretto

Originally a Grimm Brothers fairy tale entitled The Water Fairy, this story was brought to life by Hull-based poet Mary Aherne. Mary worked to create a libretto that reflects the original time period of the story, whilst still being relevant to a contemporary audience, and drenched in beautiful poeticism. 

Through the words, the characters come to life with complex traits and experiences such as greed, passion, loss, enchantment, and lust-induced madness.

As in many early-19th century fairy tales, some details were absent from the original story, so as well as characteristics of the roles, parts of the story were embellished and augmented in order to enhance the narrative.

Each episode ends on a cliffhanger, so be sure to keep coming back to find out what happens next...

A Note from Mary Aherne

The Trixie Nixie of the Millpond                                                   ‘I love the company of wolves’ Angela Carter


And sprites and mermaids and, of course, water nixies. What a joy it was for me to adapt this exquisite Grimm brothers’ fairy tale into a libretto for Sandy’s opera, The Siren. Reading or, ideally, having fairy tales – wundermärchen – read to me in early childhood triggered a fascination with story-telling, something akin to a love affair, a falling in love with narrative and all its transformative powers, transcending the ordinary into the magical with its consequent revelation of greater truths. Transformation was at the heart of this project as we moved, during a delightful and insightful series of conversations and exchanges, from tale, to concept, to libretto and finally to the marriage of the words to Sandy’s powerful and moving music. Not forgetting the voices of the performers. The collaboration was complex and richly rewarding.


Fairy tales. In the 19th century, the Brothers Grimm believed many of the fairy tales they popularised, including Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel and Snow White, were rooted in a shared cultural history dating back to the birth of the Indo-European language family. For most of us, these stories were absorbed in our formative years and their protagonists (especially those complex and beguiling female characters), themes and symbols became part of our mental furniture. How fascinating and troubling the fairy-tale world is with its stark and potent symbols – apples, snow, crystals, wolves, dark forests, darker lakes, combs, flutes and spinning wheels – spinning tales and weaving their very special kind of abracadabra. This symbolism has a universality which touches a chord deep inside of everyone: from Reykjavik to Bishkek, the poisoned apple, the shattered glass, the lady of the lake speak to all of us.


So many writers, artists and composers have drawn on fairy tales for inspiration – Shakespeare (of course), Spenser, Carter (to leap forward a little, but significantly, in time, not unknown in the genre); Burn-Jones, Rackham, Hockney, and Tchaikovksy, Mendeslssohn, Dvořák, to name but a few. And the tradition continues into the 21st century with highly popular retellings and adaptations of these tales on stage and screen. It seems our fascination with the genre never tires.


On my first reading of The Water Fairy I was struck by its resonance and the strong dramatic possibilities of the text, the writing deceptively simple yet disguising deeper passions: a quiet narrative unearthing complex fears and desires in the most mundane of settings. The Grimm brothers’ vision is a dark and brooding exploration of greed, ambition, desire and the healing power of love, with women presented at their best – and worst.


Creatively, this collaboration has been both interesting and challenging for me as I have had to accept that the word is only half or, in any case, some part of the final work. This has meant taking into consideration not only how my words can dramatise the story but also how they can work with or even, hopefully, inspire the musical composition. I have had to learn to write in a looser and freer style which makes space for the music. An interesting exercise which didn’t always come easy. The magical result, incorporating instrument and voice, is a tale which is greater than the sum of its parts. A truly happy ending…


Mary Aherne (Librettist)

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