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Letter from the Coast, 5-16: Children's Hour
Too Much Opera, too Little Prince

By Jordan Winer
Copyright 2008 Jordan Winer

BERKELEY -- "It's opera?! I hate Opera! No fair! I'm NOT going!"
"But it's 'The Little Prince,' you liked that book."
"I don't care, remember 'The Magic Flute'!"

Seven-year-olds are quite good at reasoning, as my son Dashiell was proving. His mother once took him to a "family" performance of "The Magic Flute" at the San Francisco Opera and we never stopped hearing about how painful and terrible it was. Even Faye, my older daughter, was turned off by "The Magic Flute," but she, unlike Dash, was willing to give "The Little Prince" a try. Rachel Portman, the Academy Award winning composer ("Emma," "The Cider House Rules") created this after the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry novel in an effort to "write an opera that you could take a child to see and enjoy." With me and mine, in tow for the May 9 performance at Zellerbach Hall, she only partially succeeded.

"The Little Prince," directed by Francesca Zambello (originally for Houston Grand Opera) has plenty of beauty in it for sure. Eugene Brancoveanu's authoritative yet supple baritione works wonders of counterpoint alongside 12-year-old Tyler Polen's angelic voice in the title role. Sets and costumes by the late Maria Bjornson add amazing whimsy to the show, especially four talking Baobab trees who bounce out in upright tubes with metal ribbing, the human heads poking out halfway up the trunks. The overall look of the production, co-presented here by the SF Opera and Cal Performances, is in fact gorgeous, not over the top Big Opera style, but just right. The lights, especially a long sequence of the two main characters watching a sunset, are amazing.

Tovi Wayne as the Little Prince and Andrew Bidlack, Kenneth Kellogg, Brian Leerhuber and Adam Paul Lau as the Baobab Trees in Cal Performances & San Francisco Opera's presentation of "The Little Prince." Kristen Loken photo copyright Kristen Loken and courtesy Cal Performances.

The problem is one of subtlety and scale. What works about the book is its crudeness and simplicity. The Little Prince and all the characters are drawn so simply, so childlike, that the power of the story creeps up slowly and bowls you over. Opera is bad at creeping up slowly. Even this one, which has some hummable tunes and no armies of marching people with spears, because it is Opera is by its very nature emotional. The Little Prince is very French in its subtlety. Opera is Italian in its explicit emotionality and this is a bad mix for this story.

The work itself seems to sense this, and as if afraid we are not getting the message, it repeats it ("Nothing Important Can be Seen With The Eyes") about ten times in the last ten minutes.

The Little Prince begins when an aviator crashes in the desert and happens upon a tiny little prince, whom he discovers has come here from his similarly tiny planet on a quest to, among other things, acquire a drawing of a sheep. The Little Prince in his quest discovers the real value of the love he bears toward his planet's solitary rose, the pilot discovers through the prince the unimportance of fixing his plane. The book is a cornerstone of Childhood. Like "The Catcher in the Rye" for the six to 10 set, it deals with what really matters in life and how to tell the real stuff from the distractions. Also like Catcher, it is an indictment of not just Adults, but how "Adulthood" seems to wreck so much that is pure and good about childhood, namely, the power of imagination and faith.

Part of how the opera fails is making the pilot such a big visible presence. In the book, we never see this adult but only hear his voice telling us about the remembered meeting. Wonderful plays and musicals can be made from texts, but the ones that succeed (Mary Zimmerman's "Metamorphoses" for example) deal very loosely with the inspiring text, using it to express a new truth, not merely interpreting it.

Though filled with moments of real pleasure -- such as the meeting with the Fox and hearing her expound on the issue of "Taming" people -- "The Little Prince" remains too aloof from its audience. The children in the audience were attentive, yes, but as for gasps and laughs and even tears, I don't think there were many, at least from my seats between my two kids. Did they complain and kvetch -- was it Magic Flute II? No, but they had nothing really to say about the show afterward.

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