In the 2000-year-old South Indian folk tale A Flowering Tree, a beautiful young girl devises a plan to help her impoverished family: she transforms herself into a tree, from which she and her sister gather the fragrant flowers, weave them into garlands, and sell them at the marketplace. They carefully perform the ritual, which requires two pitchers of water for the girl to turn into the tree, and two pitchers of water for her to turn back into human form. A prince from the nearby palace spies on her and wants her for his wife. After their wedding, the prince commands the girl to metamorphose for him. She complies, but his sister watches from a hiding place and, envious of her sister-in-law’s powers, forces the girl to perform the ceremony for a group of her friends. After the girl turns into a tree, however, they break her branches, tear off her flowers, and abandon her, without helping her turn back into human shape. She languishes in a netherworld, not quite tree, not quite human. The prince, distraught at his wife’s disappearance, begins to wander through the country as a beggar. After a long time, haggard and wasted, he ends up by chance in a distant town; his wife, separately, has managed to reach the same town, where the queen happens to be the prince’s long-lost sister. Shocked at her brother’s deterioration, she tries to help him, but to no avail. Finally, as a last resort, her servants bring the half-woman, half-tree to the prince. Husband and wife recognise each other even through their drastically changed appearances, and with pitchers of water he restores her to her human self.
This tale became the basis for John Adams’ 2006 opera A Flowering Tree, commissioned for the New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna for the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. The impetus for the opera was an invitation from the festival director and longtime Adams collaborator, Peter Sellars, who invited composers, choreographers, filmmakers, and other artists to create responses to Mozart’s late work. A Flowering Tree is Adams’ response to Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), Mozart’s final opera. Like The Magic Flute, A Flowering Tree is a love story about transformation, trial by fire, redemption, and everyday miracles.
Mozart finished his magical, tender score for The Magic Flute after immersing himself in the sober historical world of La Clemenza di Tito. A Flowering Tree, Adams’ radiant reflection on innocence, emerged from the darkness of his previous opera, Doctor Atomic, about the creation of the atom bomb and its ramifications. While the chorus and orchestra in Doctor Atomic deliver their power at full force, A Flowering Tree is delicate, sensuous, and subtle, like the folk tale itself. Although the orchestra in the pit is large—there are 32 percussion instruments, along with strings, winds, brass, harp, and celesta—much of the opera sounds like chamber music, with only one or two solo instruments joining a singer against a shimmering dreamscape. This is music of intense intimacy.
The cast is stripped down to just three solo voices: the girl, anonymous in the original story, to whom Adams gave the Tamil name Kumudha; the Prince; and a Storyteller, Adams’ invention, whom he refers to as “an all-purpose, omniscient baritone narrator.” The versatile chorus fills in remaining roles, deftly switching characters within moments in one scene, for instance, from the pontifical commands of the King (in English) to the shrill accusations of Kumudha’s mother (in Spanish). Because of the cast of three, with the Storyteller peripheral to the action, the encounter between Kumudha and the Prince becomes its own enchanted microcosm around which everyone and everything else revolves, and the music remains always in its service. There are times, for instance in Kumudha’s plaintive prayer to Siva in Act II, when the entire drama lies in her wide-ranging lyrical vocal line, while the orchestra around her is nearly still, holding quiet chords. Even at the opera’s most violent moment, when Kumudha’s sister-in-law taunts her and nearly destroys her, the chorus’ shouts of “Muchacha!” are exuberant and jazzy, the scene’s aggression implied rather than overt. Much later, when Kumudha and the Prince are reunited, the Storyteller’s voice is alone, in hushed phrases answered softly in the strings, and the orchestra moves forward in tentative questioning phrases as the couple approach each other. Only in the opera’s final pages, when Kumudha completes her final transformation, do the full orchestra and chorus envelop the two lovers in a rapturous embrace.
With the exception of the Nativity oratorio, El Niño, each of Adams’ forays into opera and music theatre have dealt with contemporary themes: Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, and Doctor Atomic. What Adams and Sellars recognised, of course, is that the ancient Indian tale speaks to our time as urgently as any contemporary subject. For this opera—their sixth collaboration, and the third for which they themselves have created the libretto—they chose Kannada poetry and folk tales in translations by the South Indian poet, scholar, and translator A.K. Ramanujan, who writes:
In my twenties, I collected tales from anyone who would tell me one: my mother, servants, aunts, men and women in village families with whom I stayed when I was invited to lecture in local schools, schoolteachers and schoolchildren, carpenters, tailors. I wrote them down by hand and, years later, when I could afford a tape recorder, recorded them. I had no idea what to do with them. I had no thought of writing books. I was just entranced by oral tales. I had read Grimm, Aesop, Pañcatantra, Boccaccio, the Ocean of Story, and devoured any tale that appeared in any children’s magazine. I had no idea I was doing what was called folklore.
Like most folk tales from around the world, A Flowering Tree synthesises two discrete elements: first, an impossible narrative (a girl turns into a tree; a prince marries a peasant), and second, mythic archetypes which resonate deeply with all of us, no matter what our beliefs. We recognise the girl desperate to help her mother; we know the spoiled boy who demands that his father procure the girl he wants; we’ve witnessed young girls tormented by their peers.
In Ramanujan’s version of the tale, Kumudha has just started puberty (the words for “flowering” and “menstruation” are the same in Sanskrit and Tamil). She wants to use her transformational powers for good, not selfish, purposes; but her own husband fetishises them, and his sister viciously abuses them. Only through a rite of passage, a stripping of all his riches and status (which we remember from the story of Siddhartha) can the prince prove himself worthy. The moment of recognition which concludes the story—two soulmates dramatically transformed, but now attuned to understand each other—may remind us of young Tamina and Pamino from The Magic Flute.
Adams has described Mozart’s late works as being “of almost totemic significance for me as an adolescent…I would not be the same person today had not these pieces existed.” Like Mozart’s, Adams’ music stands up to rigorous analysis, but communicates immediately without any prior experience or study. And like Mozart, he finds inspiration in folk songs, in daily life, in what he himself calls “the vernacular.” Both composers transcend notions of class and social status, of “high” and “low.” Both manage this feat most elegantly through the medium of opera.
It was Adams’ decision to set the chorus texts in Spanish: “I did this in part because I knew that for our first Vienna performances I would have the luxury of Maria Guinand’s famous Schola Cantorum de Venezuela chorus…I also felt that Spanish had become my second language, that its sonorities and particular rhythmic profile had become expressive of my daily life in California.” The orchestra for the premiere was the Joven Camerata di Venezuela, graduates of that country’s remarkable music education program. Sellars added three Javanese classical dancers—Rusini Sidi, Eko Supriyanto, and Astri Kusama Wardani—to shadow the three soloists with elegant choreography. At the premiere in Vienna on November 14, 2006, everyone, even the orchestra and Adams conducting, wore colourful Indian costumes, creating a rainbow of hues onstage.
With a text in English and Spanish, an Indian tale, a Venezuelan chorus and orchestra, and Indonesian dancers, a composer other than Adams might have chosen to cobble together a multicultural pastiche, with musical references to ragas and gamelan and Latin dances. Instead, Adams chose a more subtle route, delving beyond cultural differences into the essence of the story. Even when he evokes a Ramayana monkey chant in Act II, the music itself, bristling with hocketing winds and off-kilter brass fanfares, reminds us more of his own Harmonielehre than it does Balinese traditional music. Things are never as simple as they seem on the surface; even individual instruments take on multidimensional roles. So while the soprano and alto recorders (which Adams uses for the first time in his orchestration) may evoke Hispanic folk music, they also recall the netherworld of Orfeo ed Euridice. If the glockenspiel hints at gamelan, it also summons up Papageno’s bells from The Magic Flute.
What does it mean for a girl to turn into a tree? For A.K. Ramanujan (who analysed the tale A Flowering Tree as well as translating it), it’s about ecology, and also about the vulnerability of a girl’s emerging sexuality, and about her objectification. Globally, trees have always represented a link between the divine, the natural, and the human. In the Shinto religion of Japan, the sakaki tree is sacred, and lures spirits to its scent with its fragrant, creamy-white flowers; the divine spirit can transfer itself adeptly to twigs of the tree. In India, the Buddha sat under the Tree of Enlightenment, which protected and inspired him. Wander through any forest, and you see why trees have always suggested human form. Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of menacing oaks that stretch their limbs toward lost children; the claw-fingered trees in the dark forest of Disney’s Snow White. The connection is buried deep in our unconscious. In China, a woman who warned people of a great flood was punished by being turned into a tree. In Australia, western Warlpiri Aborigines believe that souls accumulate in trees and wait for unsuspecting women to pass by so that they can jump out and inhabit them. In Greece, there is the myth of Daphne, pursued by the god Apollo. In Bulfinch’s Mythology, she calls to her father Peneus, the river god, to “open the earth to enclose me, or change my form.”
Scarcely had she spoken, when a stiffness seized all her limbs; her bosom began to be enclosed in a tender bark; her hair became leaves; her arms became branches… her face became a tree-top, retaining nothing of its former self but its beauty. Apollo stood amazed. He touched the stem, and felt the flesh tremble under the new bark. He embraced the branches, and lavished kisses on the wood. The branches shrank from his lips.
In Greek mythology, Baucis and Philemon, an elderly married couple who declare eternal love for each other, are transformed into intertwining oak and linden trees. In a 16th-century Italian tale, a girl is born as a sprig of myrtle and coveted by the local prince. He tends and waters it carefully, and after a week the myrtle sprig turns into a fairy and slips into his bed while he’s sleeping. “The prince made a vine of his arms, and clasping her neck, she awoke from her sleep and replied, with a gentle smile, to the sigh of the enamoured prince.” Remarkably, the story parallels A Flowering Tree: the myrtle sprig is torn apart by jealous women, the prince sickens from the loss, and both are at last revived through the healing powers of love.
There is a deeply sensuous, even erotic aspect to each of these tales. The flowering tree is wife, lover, and mother grafted together. She provides nourishment, and also needs to be nourished. She will take root, and blossom, and give perennial support; she is also fragile, and easily bruised if taken for granted. Her flowers are an abundant source of both pleasure and comfort. These metaphors assume deeper dimensions when Kumudha takes her powers into the marriage bed, reminding us that shape-shifting women around the world — Japan, Poland, Ireland, Africa, and elsewhere — choose the darkened bedroom for their metamorphosis. And who among us hasn’t felt some kind of transubstantiation in those circumstances?
John Adams writes: “In the original story the young girl is rather matter-of-fact about her first transformation. There is a puzzling lack of mystery about this bit of magic. She knows she can become a flowering tree, although she has apparently never attempted it in the past. I made Kumudha’s first transformation a scene of wonderment, far more emotionally powerful than she could possibly imagine it would be.” In the gentle swellings and contractions of the orchestra, you can almost feel Kumudha pushing out branches and buds, and then relaxing into a shimmering bloom of high flutes, harp, celesta, and chorus.
Some of us alter our appearances (or they are altered for us), while for others, significant changes happen internally, but no less dramatically. When Papageno first meets her, his soulmate Papagena takes the form of an ugly old crone. For Papagena to turn back into a lovely young woman, Papageno himself must undergo a change of heart, and prove himself worthy of her. Kumudha and the Prince mirror this complex combination of external and internal metamorphosis.
But whatever alterations occur in A Flowering Tree and The Magic Flute, music remains the one constant, unwavering force. In one of the few small changes Adams made to adapt the original folk tale into his opera libretto, he gave Kumudha a beautiful singing voice, and invented a band of minstrels who, captivated by Kumudha’s song, incorporate her into their traveling shows and bring her to the distant village, where she is recognised by the sound of her voice. These plot devices of Adams’ were partly logistical, since the minstrel band explains how Kumudha, in her half-human, half-tree form, ends up at the remote palace to conclude the story. But by reclaiming Kumudha’s voice, Adams did more than simply solve a narrative dilemma. A.K. Ramanujan, in his essay on the folk tale A Flowering Tree, points out that women’s voices signify their power: “The fact that women have either been silent or written for the drawer, as Emily Dickinson did, or written under male disguises and pseudonyms is related to this taboo on women’s speech.” Kumudha’s singing voice ultimately saves both her own life and the Prince’s; it is her essence, and allows him to recognise her, even when she has deteriorated into a withered half-human, broken tree. Similarly, Pamina, unable to see Tamino, follows the sound of his magic fl ute, which charms animals and staves off danger. As they endure their trials, the young couple sings: “We walk, by the power of music, in joy through death’s dark night.” Music can translate across cultures and centuries, time and distance, in ways which language cannot.
Mozart places The Magic Flute in Egypt, just as Shakespeare framed his final masterpiece The Tempest on a magical distant island. For their audiences, these were Great Unknowns, populated by wizards and wise spirits and wild animals. In Mozart’s time, it would have been unthinkable for a Venezuelan orchestra and chorus and Indonesian dancers and a California composer to join forces for an ancient Indian folk tale in Vienna, Austria. Only in our era of speedy travel and instant communication is such a thing possible. Every speck of the world has been explored, conquered, researched, documented, or so it seems. We can fl y to Mozart’s Egypt or to Adams’ India and witness these miraculous contradictions and composite realities for ourselves. No longer do we have to imagine them from travellers’ reports, as did Dürer with his rhinoceros, or Hokusai with his sea creatures. Have we then lost the innocence of The Magic Flute? Perhaps we can find it not in geography, but in humanity. Wherever we turn on our planet in the early 21st century, there is still that girl willing herself a way to lift her family out of poverty, believing in the power of miracles. And we ourselves can choose to neglect the flowering tree, or to tend it with water and love.
— Sarah Cahill