Director Tara Barnham Discusses the Three Worlds of Coraline
Bonus Feature: Listen to Coraline Staging Director Tara Branham read her WEO Story
Author Neil Gaiman offers a quote from G. K. Chesterton at the beginning of Coraline: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Holding this quote in my heart while listening to Turnage’s music and Mularkey’s libretto, I discern that there are very clearly three worlds to our Coraline: The Real World, The Other World, and The Ghost World.
The Real World is everyday life as you and I might perceive it. This world can be dreary and gray when the rain won’t stop. But, it can also have amazing rainbows when the storm is over. At the end of the book, Gaiman writes that the specialness of the real world is not that we always get what we want, but instead that we get things we could never have imagined. “The sky had never seemed so sky, the world had never seemed so world…. Nothing, she (Coraline) thought, had ever been so interesting.”
Though both the book and the opera were written before the pandemic, both of Coraline’s parents work from home lit by the glow of their computer screens. Now more than ever, parents work from home. Imagery of “Covid-chic” fashions - fit for Zoom, with business casual on top, and pajamas on bottom - as well as strewn masks will ground us in the here and now. Coraline’s family has just moved into their new home and so the set will be covered with the tools of life in transition: boxes, plastic sheeting, drop cloths, trash bags. The real world times of transition can tempt avoidance of all the changes in one’s life because CHANGE IS OFTEN SCARY! New home, new school, new school year...we see Coraline distract herself from the real world, which is how she stumbles upon the Other World.
Coraline set illustrations: Real World vs the Other World
According to Gaiman, the Other World is the place where “the world will be built new for you every morning. If you stay here, you can have whatever you want.” The Other World is controlled and created by a character called 'The Other Mother'. Reminiscent of a Perfect Mother archetype, popularized from shows of the 1950s like Leave It To Beaver, the Other Mother has built a trap full of bright colors and symmetry with toys and treats in order to charm Coraline into staying with her forever. The Other Mother creates this attractive world with the materials from Coraline’s real-world life in transition: those boxes, plastic sheeting, drop cloths, trash bags... but now with brilliant colors that attract and eventually, overwhelm and trap.
Finally, we have the Ghost World: Ever present and constantly pressing for connection, The Ghost World is filled with Ghost Children, spirits of the Other Mother’s previous children. The Ghost World is a place where things are lost and left behind. It is the darkness, when you think you see something in the shadows so scary that you close your eyes until the sun rises. The world where forgotten objects and people remain... until they forget who they are and where they come from. Gaiman writes, “She left us here. She stole our hearts, and she stole our souls, and she took our lives away, and she left us here, and she forgot about us in the dark.” Turnage and Mularkey have done a brilliant job of transforming Ghost Children into a Greek Chorus, continuously trying to aid Coraline as she travels between worlds. The Ghost Children's music bubbles and seeps up throughout the piece, almost pushing through the walls of the world in order to be seen and heard. The Ghost Children costumes are created from the same plastic and drop cloths that we find in the Real World.
When the Ghost Children push against walls and move amid drapes, I hope the audience wonders: Did I see anything at all or was it only my imagination?
Among these three worlds, Coraline grows to be brave and face her fears. She learns that even dragons can be defeated.