“Mother Cuckoo and the Deputy”: the most popular Infernal opera

“Mother Cuckoo and the deputy” is probably the most well-known and beloved opera to come out of the Holy Infernal Empire, at least in recent years.

This opera premiered just a few years ago (953 Anno Accordi) during the Winter Sabbath of Paimon, the capital of the Malabolge Principality. It is considered the masterpiece of composer Malthos of Ronwe (usually referred to just as Malthos or Master Malthos) and the first installment of the unfinished “Misfits Trilogy”.

The main chatacters

The opera had a big impact on composers and audiences alike, and time will tell if, as it seems, this work is a watershed moment in the history of theatre and music.

THE PLOT

“Mother Cuckoo and the Deputy” is the story of the titular Mother Cuckoo, a thief, leader of a vast criminal syndicate, and her doomed romance with Deputy Karakas, the guards’ vice-captain, sworn to arrest her. Our heroine has spent a life of crime and mischief, during which she used so much illusion and transmutation magic that now she has no face or memory of her name. The Deputy sees the beauty in her, first metaphorically and then literally as he rip-off one of his eyes to get an enchanted one, able to see through her disguises.

After many attempts, the Deputy catches Cuckoo: Holding her, he feels she is a good person and lets her go, making her swear to never commit a crime again. Mother Cuckoo soon breaks the promise, but for a good reason: if she steals the eight emeralds of Berdea she could regain her face and memories and, maybe, be with Karakas. After all those chases and escape, the thief grew fond of the guard.

The emeralds heist works. Cuckoo takes the jewels but is caught by the Deputy who was standing guard. He stabs her, torn and conflicted: he loves her but he is resigned that she, having broken the promise, could not be redeemed. Cuckoo confesses the truth about the theft and her love for Karakas. Now, thanks to the emeralds, she can show her real self and remember her past. She asks Karakas in tears to not forget her name as she did. It’s too late: she dies before telling him.

The day after the deputy is promoted chief of the city guards. He can’t rejoice as he lost his love. He walks into the hide of Mother Cuckoo’s henchmen, letting himself be murdered by them.

Opera/lottery tickets and a brawl between scalpers

THE OPERA IN THE INFERNAL EMPIRE

The Holy Infernal Empire holds in high regard the arts but the opera most of all. It is the form of art that, in a way, binds all the society together, from the humble commoners to the educated nobility.

The opera is the development of the celebrations of the Season Festivals, called Sabbath.

Four times a year, near equinoxes and solstices, big festive events are held to mark the stages of the year and the milestones of farm life. The Sabbaths started as country fairs with musical shows: the nobles sponsored the shows as a demonstration of gratitude towards their subjects.

These shows would involve all the community in a sort of big “talent show”: the clergy chose the theme, the guilds provided materials, the cast and musicians were selected from all parts of society, the Aristocracy oversaw everything like a sort of theatrical impresario.

As years went by and shows become something done by professionals, it nevertheless remained something that all the community, from the simple cobbler to the sophisticated duke, would attend together.

After many twisting, merging, splitting, and reworking, the Sabbath celebrations have taken this shape: during the “eve” the fair is inaugurated, and there’s a show in the theatre: a religious hymn and the Opera. On the day of the Sabbath, during the fair, there’s a sporting event (like a joust or a fencing tournament), and then a big ball, with music and dances.

In the old times, it was all held in one place but then all the various entertainment get their venue (but there are still cities that have an arena/theatre structure that host all shows).

Besides this general structure, the Sabbath Celebration has many regional differences. Every principality has its variations and gives more importance to one part of the other but the Opera has always a prominent role.

The Opera is THE big propaganda event for the ruling class, a way to show generosity, healthy finance, good taste in art, and loyal connections with the aristocracy at large (and a way to stoke some envy in the neighbors).

This expensive endeavor has to look like it comes directly from the local noble pockets but everyone knows there are many ways to circumvent that. The main one is the lottery. As per tradition, the opera must be free, but since a theatre can’t hold a whole town a lottery is set up to see who can enter the first and most significant day (also the re-run are charged). The tickets to the lottery are cheap and often just given away as tips or gifts, everybody has at least one. The real business happens after the extraction of the lucky ones. Scalpers gather winning tickets and resell them to more interested parties. Many scalpers are in the pay of the ruling House that, in this way, get back some of the investment and monitor the attendees. Some merchants run the same business, to be sure to enter and to gain something on the side, often butting heads with the “official” scalpers: skirmish and brawls among different bands of “tickets traders” are not uncommon in a big city.

The day of the Opera is the premium moment for pageantry not just for the nobles, both also for common people and well-to-do artisan and merchants.

Parading around in rich dresses is not just fashion but also politics: an exotic and sparkling necklace can be a merchant’s way to challenge the dwindling local Duke, while a finely tailored but sober gown can be a critique to a prodigal court.

For the less wealthy people, Opera is still a way to put on the best dress and be in the spotlight for a bit: if a family wins the lottery (and don’t sell the ticket) they will send their daughters and sons, hoping they’ll find a “good catch” or an interesting suitor ( a little like the Elvish debutantes’ balls).

The excitement, if not sometimes frenzy, that surrounds the Opera is baffling to the people outside the Empire. Dwarves don’t get why to spend so much money on something ephemeral; Orcs are disturbed by the promiscuity of people of different classes; Elves think “pretending” (acting) is childish and nonsensical; the Angel Unison, obviously, think its all vanity, narcissism, and perversion.

These prejudices on the spectacle and its excesses did not block the spread of the music: operatic works are played extensively outside the Empire, with composers and interpreters reaching international fame.

“The skewed” the oldest theatre in Paimon, with still the arena structure surrounding it.

THE MUSICAL CLIMATE AND THE EVOLUTION OF GENRES

The inter-classist nature of the Opera is reflected in the music and themes.

The nobles commission works that, ideally, blend pedagogic and moral purposes (as is the duty of the educated to elevate the mind and souls of the simpletons) with an immediate appeal (as a way to gain the affection of the subordinates). From the VII century, when it was formalized, the Opera has been in a tug war between its two souls: the elitist moral play and the populist drama.

In the middle of the X century, some years before “Mother Cuckoo and the Deputy” was written, the style en vogue was the Autumn Grandeur, an approach that tried to reconcile the popular and the elitist thought big scale and jaw-dropping political propaganda.

After the successes of the Third Angelic War (928–933), there was a push toward patriotic and religious themes such as the victorious undertaking of historical figures or the lives of saints. Nobles wanted to celebrate the war and their role in it through thinly veil comparisons with the epic heroes of the past. This desire for self-aggrandizing clashed with the treasuries emptied by the war effort, but there was a way out: magic.

While magic-users are expensive to employ they are still cheaper than multiple painted sceneries, elaborate costumes, and dozens of extras. If in the past a wizard would have refused such a trivial task, in this time many signed on with theaters and companies. One reason is the high esteem Opera gained among intellectuals, but the more compelling one is the rising number of wizards and other magic-users: if they want a steady job they can not be too choosy anymore.

For all the 30s, 40s, and a good part of the 50s all the Operas had to have at least one big battles scene that employed all the illusionists’ tricks in the book: multiplied extras, magic sound amplification, olfactory sensations, perspective-defying phantasmal sceneries that give the impression of being outside, etc…

This approach blends well with some genres of opera but clashes with others. Every Sabbath has its preferred themes and plot, and the Autumn Operas have always had a triumphant feel. In autumn one celebrates harvest and vintage, the rewards of hard work, and so militaristic stories about notable victories were already common. Hence the name of the style: “Autumn Grandeur”.

“Autumn Grandeur” dominated the stages from the second half of the 30s to all the 40s.

Works like “The Widow and the Veteran”, “Under the shadows of the immolation”, “Beloved Effigies” captivated the audiences with large-scale mise en scenes, breathtaking illusionary effects, and big and sumptuous scores that could only be performed with the aid of magic.

When the 50s came the political massaging became stale and out of time, the scores grew bloated and loud as they were trying to fight the magical illusion for the spotlight. The public at large was ready for a change but no composer found a way to change the tide, until Malthos.

Master Malthos at work

MASTER MALTHOS AND THE RENEWAL OF WINTER OPERAS

The Winter Opera was the best place to innovate, as the genre was neglected by the “Autumn Grandeur”.

A typical Winter plot would be two young nobles that can’t be together due to a secret (usually an illness of some kind), with a heartbreaking death at the moment all the truth is revealed, possibly with a romantic backdrop like a starry night or a copious snowing.

The push for military/political themes made the Winter Operas focus on the “star-crossed lovers from opposite fronts” tropes, and that well quickly ran dry. The same append to the music: the typical tearjerking duets struggled to blend with the ample orchestrations and the marching rhythms audiences and patrons craved so much. The illusions too became cheesy with tense and serious finales set in front of cheesy multicolored sunsets.

A back-to-the-basic approach was needed and Malthos was the right person at the right time. His minimalistic style focused on melodies was in direct opposition with the general direction of the Opera and the “Autumn Grandeur” in particular.

Malthos (889–957) was born in Ronwe, the third city of the Malegolgie principality. For most of his life, Malthos was a lawyer and the music was just a passion. In a way, it embodied the “bourgeoise amateur” of the X century: an upper-middle-class professional that tries to elevate himself through the exercise of the arts and patronage of artists. Malthos sponsored singers and players and composed himself many song cycles for clavichord and voice (the most middle class of the genres, it is often said).

When the Third Angelic War started Matlhos decided to volunteer: he had money to spend on equipment, at forty was still a bachelor and was probably looking for meaning in his otherwise unremarkable life. Some of his friends tried to stop him: sure, he was fit for his age and had military training when he was young, but going to war seemed like a very complex suicide. He didn’t listen to them.

He entered the Imperial Army with the rank of Knight (an easily purchasable position) and with the firm intention of being on the battlefront and not in the back reading dispatch and organizing provisions (what a man of his education usually ends doing).

His wish was granted, unfortunately for him.

Little is known of Malthos time in the war, but it was in one of the most brutal battles of that war, the so-called “Massacre of the Ghost Forest”. Malthos came back home scarred not in the body but the mind: he sold everything he owned and moved to Paimon, Malebolge capital. There, at not so tender age of 44, he started a new life as a full-time composer.

He composed for everyone who asked and many asked: as a veteran, many people seek him hoping his first-hand experiences would shape inspiring songs and triumphant marches. The war has been a victory after all! But Malthos created beautiful music full of melancholy and sorrow. The melodies were easy to sing but never dull or obvious, gently supported by a precise counterpoint. Even the quickest dances and the more uplifting chants had an after taste of loss and mourning. Even if he often disappointed his patrons Malthos still received a lot of commission and for a good reason: he gave away his music for (almost) nothing.

Malthos came back from the war completely disinterested in any material good, living like a hermit in his small house in the Harbour District. If he had any money he would spend them on musical instruments or expensive quills made of sun-peacock feathers (which have the propriety of creating their ink). He sometimes dressed with just a drape and the nearby tavern keeper would drag him in her tavern to eat if he didn’t show up for more than two days.

The eccentricities of Malthus meant he never landed prestigious commissions and a lot of the ones he got were never played (since they were not what the patron asked for). Nevertheless, Malthos’ music spread: hummed by the dockworkers, serenaded by the heartbroken, whistled by the laundresses, drunkenly chanted by guards and thieves alike. A lot of popular tavern songs are, unknown by most, the work of Malthos.

Eventually, the fame of Malthos’ tunes brought some fame to Malthos himself, so much so that the Princess chose him to write an opera.

PRINCESS ELECTOR XENIA III OF HOUSE GLASYA AND THE MALABOLGE REPUTATION.

Malebolge principality always comes second place, with another principality or foreign nation that is better than them at something: they have the second-best wines, the second-biggest shipyard, the second-largest timber production, the second-highest quality laces…

The only thing in which Malebloge seems to excel is quite an undesirable one: they have the fame to be the most crime-ridden nation of the Empire.

The harbor of Paimon, the capital city, is considered a nest of smugglers, headquarter of sketchy mercenaries, and home to many criminal syndicates. One of them, the Perennial Cuckoos, has gained almost mythical status, they are boogeymen responsible for all unresolved crime and unexplained tragedy.

Princess Elector Xenia III of House Glasya

Things are not as grim as they may seem: yes, there’s crime, but not much more than in the other big cities. The problem has been a series of striking stories that became sordid tales told by traveling storytellers and racy murder ballads performed in the taverns of the docks.

One of these stories was the story of a faceless assassin and the guard who caught her, the basis of “Mother cuckoo and the Deputy”.

Princess Xenia III of House Glasya always suffered for the “eternal second” status of the principality so much so that she was ready to embrace its questionable primacy.

The prince consort died during the Angelic War and left Xenia widowed and childless. From that point on Xenia spent a lot of her energies to leave a mark, to put her nation, her city, and her house at the top. The top of what was an open question.

The princesses attempted improving farming but the right intuition was given her by music. During a state visit to the Imperial Capital (in 941), she heard some of the colorful tales and ballads that were spread about her city. She also was asked repeatedly by her peers to confirm this or that crude and titillating anecdote coming from Paimon. There was a demand for more stories and the Princess decided to quench that thirst.

Princess Xenia gave a push to the printing and paper-making industries, ordering the publishing of scores and scenarios for the bards, storytellers, and tavern singers. They were just cheap single-sheet publications with some musical phrases and a plot outline, enough for a folk artist to build an act with some improvisation. They were called the “misfits’ papers” and became quite popular, spreading from harbor to harbor in all the Empire and beyond. The “Misfits’ papers” kickstarted the printing industry of Paimon and give the princess her much desired “first place” in something.

Of course, stories about these stories started to circulate: the most popular of them was that the princess herself is the leader of the Perennial Cuckoo and the “Misfits’ papers” are her way of advertising the shady business of her city. Xenia, who was always seen as a bitter and boring stateswoman, reveled in her new image of mysterious and adventure mastermind. Her commissioning an Opera about that was, at that point, inevitable. Xenia contacted the author of a misfits’ paper about a female mastermind and her hunter, the paper was called “the cuckoos’ flight” and the author was Malthos. She chooses it to be a Winter Opera, just because she didn’t want any tacked-on happy ending.

The chamberlain was quite shocked in seeing the hovel in which the famed author lived and even more when Malthos asked for payment a dwarven clavichord, four violins, and a dozen of peacock feathers.

THE WORK ITSELF AND THE PREMIERE

Malthos’ working style was… unconventional., not only pretend to write the libretto himself but also demanded a personal meeting with the princess to know what she wanted as the person commissioning the work. He was present at all the rehearsals but never spoke, just handed the performer new scores, written on the spot with his colorful quills. All the other directions (costumes, set, magic effects) were harshly discussed with the Chief of the Company (the director/conductor, to simplify) behind closed doors but never in front of the artists. Malthos would start crying unprompted and at any moment. It usually arrived to rehearsal wearing just a red drape.

The Autumn Opera of that year (953), “the Masked Nun” patronized by the Princess nephew and heir Atmos, was the apotheosis of derivative “autumn grandeur” with a sprinkle of espionage and intrigue, in an attempt to catch on with the changing tastes. Not a great success.

With the Winter Sabbath approaching, the audience of all extraction grew more and more excited: everybody knew the story of “the cuckoo lady” and wanted to see it staged. Something new and familiar at the same time! Perfect! There were some skeptics: wasn’t all of this a little too… low brow? Shouldn’t be the operas a way to elevate the tastes of the common people? But all these doubts were soon to be dissipated.

The premier was hosted in “the skewed” the oldest venue of the city, a relatively small but symbolic location since it is so near the Harbor District where the story was set. The limited place and great expectations made the scalpers rich as well as the tailor, which received numerous and generous orders for dresses for the premiere.

The opera didn’t disappoint.

The music, the arias, in particular, were both simple and sophisticated, perfect for virtuosic show-off but still easy to sing along. The mise en scene walked on that thin edge as well: the magic effects were spectacular but someone could put on an effective production without it.

Take for example the “Cicada Scene”, the one with the aria “To see you, my dear enemy”, where deputy Karakas ripoff his eye end put a Divining Cicada in its place, to gain the power to see through illusions. There, the audience was surrounded by hundreds of phantasmal cicadas but their sound was still made by instruments: the stings mimicked the cicada songs (an there for any orchestra could to it, even without magical aids).

This blend of simple and familiar with refined and innovative pervaded the work, with classical tropes played straight but with a musical twist for example the death scene under the snow (a clichè of the winter opera) had entire bars of singing without accompaniment; the typical fight scene/ballet was put as the closing number instead of in the middle as an interlude, ending the story without an aria; the female lead had an illusory mask all through the opera, never showing her face until the last minute… the examples are many.

“Mother Cuckoo and the Deputy” was a wild success and the theatre had to schedule a month of reruns to keep up with the demand (the reruns were not free and proved a big gain for the producer, the Princess herself). It was performed in the Empire Capital during the minor winter sabbath with much acclaim. The scores and libretto were published and sold in numbers to various Palyers’ Companies, all eager to put up their production the following winter. A sort of “cuckoo mania” swept the city, with women wearing featureless masks and men using decorated eye patches during their nights out.

The princess personally gave Malthos the title of Master, even if he never had formal musical training, and order two more Winter Operas, to be performed the following years.

“The impostor and the vengeful bride” was a sort of gender swap version of the previous work, with a male delinquent chased by a female masked vigilante. The libretto was not on par with “mother cuckoo”, it felt too mechanic and cold, but the arias were burned in the mind of the audience as if you could know the melody and the lyrics by heart after just one listening. The music had the simplicity of a nursery rhyme or a drinking song and yet was varied and complex. The score of “the impostor” obsessed numerous composers and created many imitators: “Malthosianism” is still going strong after almost a decade.

Malthos himself never saw the Opera: he was found dead on the docks two days before the premiere. Legend says that he was accidentally killed during a brawl between scalpers who were fighting over the tickets of “the impostor”.

The third Opera has just the title, “the dance of the gallows pendants”, and some notes, but many think a more complete version is hidden somewhere or in the hands of someone: many gullible music enthusiasts are put on a wild goose chase by cynical locals that have sold them “reliable information” on where to find the lost score.

LEGACY

Many arias from opera become a common song, sung on the streets and in the inns, but no opera has spread so much as “mother cuckoo”. In some taverns, it is performed in its entirety with improvised scenes and questionable (but effective) adaptation to the arrangement.

Many composers took the Malthos work as a challenge, something to be inspired by and to thrive to surpass. Even the ones that didn’t like it found new inspiration just trying to do something completely different. New and strong blood is now flowing in the musical scene.

Many cultures, typical diffident towards the extravagant opera saw its merit through the work of Master Malthos. Opera is not about over-the-top scenery and ear-piercing high notes, it’s about emotions and the connection they make. Emotions are something personal, idiosyncratic even, but also something that we all have in common, we all feel. Opera makes people from different backgrounds feel the same for a couple of hours. It brings everyone together or at least gives that comforting illusion.

Thanks to “Mother Cuckoo and the Deputy” is more popular than ever and even musician from far away land are starting to compose them.

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Luca Vanzella

A world-building project. Art and stories from a fantasy world. All illustrations are mine: collages and rework of other art. https://linktr.ee/Codex_Inversus