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WNO’s intriguing ‘Little Prince’: Really for the kids?

Written By | Dec 27, 2014

WASHINGTON, December 25, 2014 – The Washington National Opera’s still relatively new Christmas tradition—celebrating the holiday season annually with a children’s or family opera—may very well prove to be a durable one.

Take, for example, the company’s production last weekend of Rachel Portman’s “The Little Prince” at the Kennedy Center. It ran with five performances (including matinees) over three days. Quirky, colorful, and loaded with visual and character surprises, all designed by the late Maria Björnson, this production proved delightful and well-nigh irresistible to even to the youngest members of the Terrace Theater audience.

In addition, the Terrace is proving to be a great space in which to mount these family operas. Particularly for a newish opera like “Little Prince,” the Terrace’s intimate stage brings the action closer to the audience, even allowing for the extra space needed for a small orchestra pit in this space. Further, the steep rake of the seats in the auditorium gives even the tiniest of opera-goers a decent chance to see what’s happening on stage.

As for this year’s offering itself, it, too was a delight, although the production was not without its problems. But let’s visit the opera first.

WNO’s current artistic director, Francesca Zambello, directed the original production of “Little Prince” in its world premiere performances at the Houston Grand Opera back in 2003. Ms. Portman’s opera, written in a melodic style that blooms forth from the roots of minimalism, was adapted from the famous 1943 short novel of French aviator, writer and poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Illustrated by the author with distinctive watercolor drawings, “Little Prince” is not really a fairy tale for young children so much as it is a parable for adults who, in the midst of the Second World War—which erupted not all that long from the first one—might perhaps be longing to regain an earlier peace and innocence that seemed to have left this planet for good.

The Pilot  carrying the Little Prince.

The Pilot (Christian Bowers) carrying the Little Prince (Henry Wagar). (Credit: Scott Suchman)

That said, the book has become a children’s favorite over the years all the same, perhaps because, even at an early age, many youngsters can grasp the existence of greater complexity even if they can’t quite complete the puzzle.

Dropping to Earth from the tiny asteroid where he lived, after first visiting a number of other planets, the book’s eponymous Prince—forever a child—winds up in a hostile desert landscape where he runs across a swashbuckling pilot whose single-engine plane has crash-landed nearby. The remainder of the book is a philosophical dialogue cast as a fairy tale, in which the Prince relates his clearly allegorical adventures on the other planets.

Apparently searching to grasp some semblance of truth in a chaotic universe, he longs to return to the special rose he has nurtured on his home planet. At the same time, the pilot, too, realizing that he may very possibly perish in the desert, reflects on his own life, including roads not taken.

It’s all very French, really—a charming story that wanders somewhat aimlessly, seeking the true meaning of life while never quite seeming to resolve the question.

In the end, “The Little Prince” is a little bit like William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” in which the poet ultimately seems to mourn the passing of childhood innocence while asserting that, having passed through the sorrows of experience, one could perhaps achieve a final spiritual synthesis that regains innocence once again, this time tempered by the realistic parameters of experience.

All this is doubtless why the book has been proclaimed a classic over the years as both a philosophical speculation and as a somewhat mystical children’s story. Its universality, at least in part, is surely what inspired the composer to pen this strange but marvelously musical little opera, whose efficient and poetic English language libretto, crafted by Nicholas Wright, quite faithfully echoes the whimsy and mysticism of the original literary work, at least in our opinion.

Ditto WNO’s production—adapted, as we’ve already noted, from this opera’s original production in Houston—was really a small wonder, re-creating with astonishing fidelity, the simple yet severe watercolor background of clear blue sky and dusky desert that dominates the pages of Saint-Exupéry’s short book. In Act I, that’s all the scenery we see, aside from the hulking presence of the pilot’s grounded plane, angled slightly stage right. (Act II finds the aircraft residing much farther away, a tiny presence near the back of the stage.)

The setting provides a gloomy yet hopefully bright setting for the series of hallucinatory visions the Little Prince calls forth with each story he tells. From a functional standpoint, it also allows more room for the rather sizeable number of performers WNO brought on stage for these performances.

We attended the opening performance of this production, and in the main must score it as a success. The opera’s weird and colorful characters, outfitted in Maria Björnson’s unbelievably eye-popping and fantastical costumes, and its catchy music utterly charmed the capacity audience, which ranged from grandparents to little tykes perhaps as young as 4 years of age.

Björnson’s costumes deserve special note here. While largely faithful to the book, they were quirky and evocative of other stage shows, films and stories. The obnoxious baobab trees echoed the obnoxious apple trees in the movie “The Wizard of Oz;” the buffoonish hunters evoked a squad of Warner Brothers’ Elmer Fudd clones out “hunting wabbits;” and the dancing roses, thorny legs and all, pranced across the stage like a small chorus line of Rockettes gone horribly wrong.

Colors, characters, and costumes, and the almost cartoon-like quality of the show captivated the little ones perhaps most of all, many of whom were clearly familiar with the book, making the theater slightly noisy at times, but why not? If this was the first encounter with opera for many of these youngsters, that could only be a good thing in the end.

The adult characters in the opera, including the various animals, eccentrics, and baobab trees the Prince encountered on the way, were gloriously well-sung by WNO’s excellent cast of primarily Domingo-Cafritz young artists. Or rather, two alternating casts, given the five weekend performances. (We review the opening night cast here.)

Christian Bowers was rock steady as the Pilot on opening night, guiding the narrative along while plaintively remembering his own lost past. Vocally, he added authority and hard-won wisdom to the strange menagerie that gradually paraded through his and the Prince’s deserts of memory.

The Little Prince's special Rose (Aleksandra Romano) .

The Little Prince’s special Rose (Lisa Williamson) is one prickly character. (Credit: Scott Suchman)

Another standout was Lisa Williamson as the Prince’s special Rose. Outfitted almost like an exotic Vegas showgirl, with folding and unfolding petals of pink and red borne aloft by a stem mimicked by green, thorny leggings, Ms. Williamson, bursting forth in near-coloratura grandeur, gave voice to the beauty and the vanity that captivated the Prince.

Nearly stealing the show was Aleksandra Romano, whose sinuous, silvery-voiced, yet beguiling Fox provided not only this opera’s most touching, personal moment. She provided at least a partial answer to the Little Prince’s cosmic questions in a most believable way.

Hat tips as well to Wei Wu’s blustery King, Patrick O’Halloran’s goofy Lamplighter and, above all, to John Kapusta’s pair of characters: his garishly yellow-suited Vain Man and his ssssslithery and ssssinister Ssssnake, the latter of which seemed to channel the serpent-like vampires in the camp horror classic, “Lair of the White Worm.”

The Snake and the Little Prince.

John Kapusta is a very nasssty ssssnake. (Credit: Scott Suchman)

The adult singers in this production were only a part of this ensemble cast, however. The key role of the Little Prince himself was ably and winningly sung on opening night by young Henry Wager.

The entire cast was joined from time to time by the sparkling WNO Children’s Chorus, under the clearly exceptional direction of Will Breytspraak. And both singers and the WNO’s small orchestra were crisply led by Nicole Paiement from the mini-orchestra pit.

As we alluded to earlier, this successful production of “The Little Prince” was not without its flaws, however, nearly all of them involved with the problem of diction.

While some opera librettos are forgettable and ephemeral, Nicholas Wright’s libretto for “The Little Prince” is not one of them. Highly literary and distinctly poetic, its words and imagery closely mirror the essence of Saint-Exupéry’s little book. Mr. Wright’s words tell the story and reflect the original author’s inquiring spirit, and are as important to this opera as the music itself.

For that reason, it’s a shame that this production, at least on opening night, frequently failed to convey the text intelligibly, although it’s hard to pin this problem on any one item.

Lost, for example, was much of the text sung by the WNO Children’s Chorus. Yes, they sang beautifully, already noted. But when it came to diction—the articulation of individual words—this quality was almost entirely absent.

Having directed a church children’s choir myself many years ago, I’m sympathetic to this issue. It’s sometimes tough enough to get young singers to focus on their individual parts in a mixed chorus. As a result, one sometimes has to leave harping about diction by the wayside as performance dates rapidly approach. Memorizing music and words—plus, in the case of this opera, choreography and blocking as well—is hard enough, and you can’t expect everything.

That said, I wonder why WNO didn’t recognize the issue and set up a pair of big screen monitors on either side of the stage to project subtitles as the company has done in the past. Alternatively, at least some of the youngsters might have been outfitted with little microphones, as was Henry Wager in his part as the Little Prince.

Yes, this is anathema in opera as well it should be. But this was a family production, not a grand staging of “Aïda,” so perhaps such an approach might have been forgiven here.

In addition to the diction problems for the chorus, the adult singers occasionally experienced the same issue as well. This time, however, it was usually a case of the orchestra washing over the voices, something that can happen in grand opera as well. The conductor needs to be aware of the dynamic and pull back a bit when necessary, and perhaps this happened in the later performances of “The Little Prince.”

Wei Wu's self-important King.

Wei Wu’s self-important King reminded us of today’s politicians, but with perfect diction. (Credit: Scott Suchman)

But on opening night, there were moments when it didn’t, again leading to lost dialogue. The only singer who experienced zero problems with diction on opening night was Wei Wu, whose authoritative, booming voice as the King provided a real lesson both in terms of vocal power as well as the incredible effectiveness of crisp enunciation.

The audience heard every single word of this cleverly-worded vignette, as delivered by Mr. Wu. The performance would have bordered on perfection had this been the case throughout the evening.

We admit that no solution to this dilemma would have been perfect. On one hand, passing out microphones to everyone would have turned this into an off-Broadway production, something neither desirable or necessary. On the other hand, video-subtitles might have been a better idea, with the caveat of course that the youngest members of the audience wouldn’t have been able to read them.

Fortunately for WNO, whatever the case with opening night’s lost words, the music, the setting, the characters, and the costumes quite clearly won great favor with the audience, many of whose members might have been familiar with the book already.

But in upcoming holiday opera productions, WNO might want to make sure that the words of each production are as clear and distinct for the audience as are the music, the singing and the acting. That will help assure that this winning new tradition not only has a long life at the Kennedy Center. It will also help boost the number of budding opera fans who will keep opera alive for generations to come.

Rating for the production: *** ½ (Three and one-half stars out of four.)

Rating for diction: * (One out of four stars—could be improved.)

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Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17