On Flowering Tree
A Flowering Tree was commissioned as part of the Vienna New Crowned Hope Festival to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. It takes as its model Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and its themes are magic, transformation and the dawning of moral awareness.
A Flowering Tree is based on a folktale from the Kannada language of southern India as translated by A.K. Ramanujan.
Kumudha, a poor but beautiful young girl, discovers that she has the magic gift of being able to turn herself into a flowering tree. Wanting to give comfort and support to her old and suffering mother, she asks her sister to help her perform a ceremony that will transform her body into a tree. The sister gathers up the flowers of the tree and Kumudha returns to her human form. They sell the flowers in the town marketplace and give the money without explanation to their mother.
A young Prince, hiding in a tree, spies on Kumudha during one of her transformations. Enchanted and troubled by both her beauty and her magic abilities, he demands of his father, the King, that Kumudha be brought to the palace so that he can marry her.
On the night after their wedding Kumudha enters the bridal chamber only to find the Prince silent and sullen. Several nights pass without him speaking to her or touching her. Finally he makes his demand: she must do her transformation for him. Kumudha, ashamed, resists, but finally relents and performs the ceremony for him.
The Prince’s jealous sister, suspicious of Kumudha, hides in the royal bedroom and sees the ceremony and transformation take place. The next day, while the Prince is away, she taunts Kumudha and commands her to perform the ritual for her and a group of her wealthy young friends. Kumudha reluctantly assents, but the bored young people lose interest and leave her in the midst of a rainstorm, not having completed her return to her human form.
Kumudha, now a hideous freak–a stump of a body, half tree and half human–crawls into a gutter, where she is found by a roving band of minstrels.
The Prince does not know what has happened to his young wife. He assumes his arrogance has made her leave the court forever. Full of remorse, he leaves the palace, becoming a beggar and wandering mute and aimlessly through the country.
Time passes. The Prince, haggard and almost unrecognizable, comes to the palace courtyard of a distant city. The new Queen of this city is his sister, she who had taunted Kumudha. In shock, the Queen recognizes her brother and brings him into the palace, bathing and feeding him. But he will not utter a word and only lies lifeless in his bed. In the town marketplace, several of the queen’s maids see the minstrel troupe and hear the beautiful singing of a freakish thing with neither hands nor feet. They bring this strange and misshapen torso to the palace and suggest that its beautiful singing might revive the Prince. Not knowing that this is Kumudha, the Queen orders her to be bathed and covered with scented oils and brought to the Prince’s bed.
Alone, Kumudha and Prince recognize one another. They are both overcome with grief and then with joy. He takes two pitchers of water and performs the old ceremony. Kumudha returns to her human form.