People like to go to live shows over the holidays, and they like to take children to them. The opera world would very much like to participate in this. Yet it comes up, time and again, against the question of what constitutes a “children’s opera” — which, much like “American opera,” can be variously interpreted as being an opera for children, or involving them.
In the sense of involving children, at least, the Washington National Opera’s production of Rachel Portman’s “The Little Prince,” which opened at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Friday and ran for five performances, was a children’s opera indeed. An adaptation of Francesca Zambello’s original production for the 2003 world premiere in Houston, it involved an enchanting children’s chorus, wielding lanterns and paper cranes and singing lustily; as well, of course, as the protagonist, soundly sung by Henry Wager (who performed in last year’s WNO holiday opera, “The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me”). It marked the third year of WNO’s new holiday tradition, and, because it played in a small theater, its run sold out even before it opened. So, by some measures, the production was a success before anybody had even seen it.
Portman and Zambello certainly offered a young audience plenty to grab onto. Portman’s music is pretty and hummable (conductor Nicole Paiement made a sturdy company debut in the pit), and the opera presents one set piece after another, with comic characters to laugh at even if you’re not sure what they’re saying, such as the quartet of hunters in outsize hats and guns and outfits, like incarnations of Elmer Fudd. There were also characters to love, like the fox with the elegant, slender nose (sung by Aleksandra Romano, a member of the Domingo-Cafritz program for young artists) or the Rose, silvery of voice, emerging from thorny green legs in an unfolding of pink petals (Lisa Williamson).
I’m not entirely sure it offers children a story, though. The classical novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on which it is based, is not necessarily a children’s story to begin with. It’s poetic and poignant and sets out to present an adult’s view of a child’s world, lightly swathed in nostalgia. The opera, seeking to get this across, resorts to recounting much of it in blocks of text that become, when sung, hard to understand, although the balances between orchestra and voices were significantly better in the Terrace Theater than in the much larger New York State Theater, where I saw the piece in 2005. Because the production presents the story’s vignettes in a single, abstract space, I wonder how many of the young viewers who laughed at the yellow-clad Vain Man or the sinuous and sinister Snake (both sung by John Kapusta) actually understood what was supposed to be happening onstage.
Do they need to? No, because opera has traditionally passed by audiences, especially beginning audiences, in unintelligible chunks. Yes, because opera has traditionally been driven by a dramatic and narrative need, and while plenty of composers have tried to push the envelope for artistic reasons, “The Little Prince” is not seeking to break any molds. You’re left with a static evening of vignettes, in which the central role, that of the Pilot and narrator, is dramatically the least significant or memorable, despite the firm performance of Christian Bowers on Friday night.
There was certainly plenty to like that evening, including Wei Wu, a bass in the Domingo-Cafritz program whose singing I’m starting to look forward to, as well as Patrick O’Halloran as the Lamplighter. At the end, the audience whooped and hollered, and it was wonderful to see that they enjoyed the performance. I was still left with a niggling feeling that, despite all of the efforts put into writing children’s operas these days, we’re still not quite sure what we’re aiming for.