Washington is experiencing a deluge of opera for children. It began last Wednesday with the Michigan Opera Theatre's production of "Alice in Wonderland" by Robert Chauls, and will continue this Wednesday with the world premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti's "A Bride From Pluto," both at the Kennedy Center. On Friday it will reach a climax with the world premiere of "nightingale" (by Charles Strouse, composer of "Annie") at the Wolf Trap Barns and the American Premiere of "Cinderella" by British avant-garde composer Peter Maxwell Davies at the Sheridan School in Georgetown.
Why this sudden interest in a long-neglected branch of opera? What are the special joys and challenges of composing opera for children? Gian Carlo Menotti addresses the questions:
IT IS not only my love for children that makes me want to write for them, but the challenge of a task which I find dangerously difficult. An audience of children is a merciless one. Inside the theater, just as they are quickly enchanted, children become easily bored. They do not forgive boredom. Two ingredients to hold their attention are infallible: action and pageantry. But even pageantry must have action. In "Nutcracker," children do become restless in the second half when the story has already been told and the dancing becomes abstract.
Opera, unfortunately, is mainly theater of meditation rather than action. Music must have time to unfold itself and establish its own logical structure, unless the composer resigns himself to writing "background music," which I abhor. On the other hand, children will not put up with long-winded arias, overtures, interludes, and ensembles where words are unintelligible. Therefore, the composer must build an intricate, fragile scaffolding of short, simple melodies in dynamic recitatives hoping that it will hold the elusive weight of a child's attention. For, once his interest is gone, it is very difficult to regain, and the scaffolding collapses for good as far as he is concerned.
Another challenge is to understand a child's sense of humor. What makes a child laugh is quite different from what makes us laugh. And I find that too often those "cute," sophisticated children's books are written for the parent rather than the child. What we consider "bad taste" often delights a child and we must not deny or begrudge him the delight of crude and obvious slapstick.
In writing a libretto for children, the composer's task is made easier only on one count. Dramatic music is essentially limited to the evocative expression of basic emotion such as joy, sadness, tenderness, etc., or the onomatopoetic illustrations of simple actions. Its subtleties are within the abstract logic of the music itself and it cannot illustrate an aphorism or present a syllogism or psychoanalyze an action.
Thank God children despise psychological investigation! Characters must be either lovable or hateful, pitiful or funny. The child must identify with at least one of the characters and decide early in the action on which side to stack his cards.
When I compose for a child, however, I must confess that it is my constant, secret hope that rather than side with one of the characters on the stage, he will side with the composer!
But there are other problems connected with writing for children, and one of them doesn't directly concern children at all. They are usually accompanied to the theater by one or both of their parents . . . so one cannot ignore the presence of grown-ups in the audience. In writing an opera for children, one must acknowledge the adults by dropping in an occasional subtlety--a quick aside, either musical or dramatic--which might be lost on children, but give the grown-ups a basis for identifying with what is going on in the story. This is extremely important because one of the things that can spoil children's pleasure in anything--be it in play or watching a performance--is the suspicion that their parents are bored, since they want them to enjoy things just as much as they do. That may be why children love the circus so much: They realize that it's a universal entertainment, not something meant only for them.
Another consideration in writing for children is deciding which age group you are addressing. There's a world of difference between a 6-year-old and a 10-year-old. It comes down to deciding just how long a child remains a child. While a psychologist might treat this as a highly complex matter, the dramatist's task is somewhat simpler. My own feeling is that one remains a child as long as one depends on the protection and reassurance of others. By this measure, there are of course children who, by the age of 12, are no longer really children, just as there are adults who, in their need for protection and reassurance, remain children all their lives--which is why there are some grown-ups who enjoy works for children almost as much as children themselves.
Children receive this protection and reassurance when a story or a play makes them understand that the world isn't as menacing as it sometimes seems to be. Equally important, they are reassured by any demonstration that the ethical principles their parents have taught them remain constant and valid--applicable in even the most fantastic circumstances. That's one reason that a happy ending is almost inevitable.
Admittedly, there are some very famous fairy tales with unhappy endings--Andersen's "Little Mermaid" and "The Match Girl"--but I suspect that children find them satisfying only in that the characters have been "rescued" in death from intolerable lives. Death, as we understand it, doesn't really exist for a child. Of course, they are aware of the reality of death, but it is always something that happens to others, not to themselves. As long as they are safely enclosed in the orbit of their parents' love, children expect that life goes on forever and that they will be "happy ever after."