Last Friday at Zellerbach I heard the West Coast premiere of Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince, while surrounded by a noisy, inattentive audience – oh, not the many, many children, who were beautifully behaved, and whose joyful excitement after the show was a treat to see – just the usual moronic, rude adults who think everyone wants to hear them talking during music. There seemed many more of them than usual. The innocent open pleasure of the children versus the self-absorbed self-importance of adults is actually quite the theme in this work, and for a moment I had to consider, based on the evidence around me during the performance, whether it really is true to life. That moment didn’t last long. Most adults I know are almost too conscious of being trapped in absurd situations and pointless routines, and aren’t particularly pompous about it or proud of it. There just isn’t any way out, if you want to pay the bills and otherwise get through the day. It’s odd but maybe appropriate that a celebration of the impulses of childhood over adulthood should come at a university. As I walked through the glades on the Berkeley campus towards Sproul Plaza, I noticed each lightpole was hung with huge banners showing a photograph of a current Cal student, his or her future graduation date, and a sentence saying what the whole crazy Berkeley experience has meant to him or her. Apparently my alma mater has taught most of them that they, too, can reduce their lives to inspirational clichés. Keep on living out loud, whatever that means! Just please don’t do it while I’m trying to listen to music.
I thought I had never read The Little Prince. Now, several days after seeing it, I’m thinking maybe I did read it, though obviously it didn’t make much of an impression on me, and believe me, I was a child prone to weeping. I love children’s books and still read them (my rule of thumb for giving books to actual children: it has to be something I would consider reading myself). The Oz books were and are particular favorites. Let me commend the Beckett-like character of the Hungry Tiger (who can only be sated by eating fat babies, but who is too tender-hearted to allow himself to do so). Check out the heroic chicken Billina in Ozma of Oz. And if you want to cry at the end of a children’s book, read The Lost Princess of Oz. The harsh, hilarious dreamworld logic of those books (another obvious example is the Alice books – Amazon is finally sending me my DVD of Unsuk Chin’s new Alice opera, by the way) captures something really true to the helpless absurdity of childhood, and it echoes into the helpless absurdity of adulthood.
But I don’t think The Little Prince is a children’s book at all. It’s an adolescent’s book, and I can see that if you read it at a certain stage in your life, it will make a profound impression on you, and seem like truth, and you will remember it with deep affection, and perhaps even retain the affection if you re-read it as an adult. It speaks to that very early stage of late childhood/early adulthood when you have the troubling sense that the world is terribly wrong, but that if only people would think – or, more to the point, feel – differently, then life and the world would be different, as if the world’s troubles are a matter of perception and organization, rather than inherent faults or flaws. I don’t really respond to these books, I guess. (I was also the only one in eighth grade who hated SE Hinton's The Outsiders. Everyone else was sobbing. I thought it was sentimental and manipulative. But I kept my mouth shut and went back to reading Dostoevsky’s Idiot on my own. Supply your own joke about how popular I was.)
So I’m only guessing when I say that the opera is faithful to the book in story and spirit. That seemed to be the feeling around me (as I sometimes do, I've avoided reading reviews and reactions until I could post mine). I wonder if certain details are made clearer in the book: for instance, how the little Prince gets from planet to planet in the first half, and why he’s stuck in the desert on Earth for the whole second half. Reading the summary in the program book afterward, I gathered that the flock of cranes was moving him from planet to planet, but I still don’t know why they couldn’t move him around on Earth. I wondered why the cranes were on stage, but frankly the story is a bit disjointed anyway, and the crane chorus, like all the choruses, was lovely so I just enjoyed listening. In fact all the music is really genuinely lovely, in a melted ice cream kind of way, and maybe too relentlessly so. During the crane chorus a woman soloist does a soaring vocalise above the rest of the singers, and it’s really lovely. Then there’s another chorus later on where I think flowers are singing, and a woman representing water also does a soaring vocalise above the rest of the singers, and I might have the details wrong because it started to blur a bit, but the second time around, it was still lovely, but it didn’t seem like a deliberate echo of or reference to the earlier moment, it just seemed like a lovely effect in a perhaps fairly limited range of lovely effects. Lovely – I keep using that word, and after a while, it starts losing its force, doesn’t it?
I think the music would have been more powerful if the opera were shortened – maybe 90 minutes without intermission, as opposed to a bit over two hours with an intermission. As I said, it’s a bit disjointed. I wasn’t sure we needed all the little planets in the first half, however amusing they might be on their own. I was frankly puzzled by the planet of the Vain Man. He’s sung by the tenor Thomas Glenn, who has a really appealing reedy quality to his voice. He’s very handsome, but his face was made up so that he bore a startling resemblance to Joel Grey as the MC in Cabaret and he’s dressed in an odd, bright yellow suit and hat – sort of like Jim Carrey in The Mask except completely round in the middle. Is the point supposed to be that he’s not handsome at all in any conventional sense, just hungry for attention? Glenn returns later as the Snake and does a really terrific job in modulating his voice and performance, giving a slight hiss on his sibilants and moving with the slightly jerky rhythm and menacing hooded air of a snake.
The performances are all very fine. Kenneth Kellogg has wonderful stature and a commanding voice as the King, Andrew Bidlack was poignant in different ways as the Drunkard and the Lamplighter, Marie Lenormand is a tender fox, whose hunters are also played by some of the guys I’ve just mentioned. I think the hunters and the fox are there to teach us a valuable lesson about loving, but to be honest my attention wandered a bit at that point because with a sudden rueful pang in my heart I started wishing I were at The Cunning Little Vixen instead.
Eugene Brancoveanu as the Pilot has a voice that is bright and clear without being cartoony, which also describes the sets and costumes. I assume the costumes are based on Saint-Exupery’s own illustrations to his book, so he must be responsible for the puzzling look of the Vain Man. But generally the costumes look great, except for the Rose and the other flowers, which I thought looked sort of swollen and fake. Ji Young Yang had a nice metallic quality to her voice – I’d call it sharpness but that is misleading in a musical context – that helped embody the thorny side of the Rose.
I heard Tovi Wayne as the eponymous Prince. I’m not that crazy about the white sound of boy sopranos or children’s voices generally, and the character strikes me as kind of annoying – if I were a pilot who had just crashed in the African desert, and I couldn’t fix my plane and was running out of water, I don’t think I would succumb to the tender wisdom of some weird little kid who appears out of nowhere and denounces me as a silly grown-up for trying to fix my plane and get the hell out of Dodge instead of drawing him suitable sheep; I mean, what the hell? it’s very whimsical and all, but I’d probably be thinking about the water situation – but Wayne did a nice job, and was very appealing. He was also amplified. I understand the necessity for helping a child singer in a barn like Zellerbach, singing with and against the trained operatic voices of adult men and women, and it was very well done, but it was done, and that should have been noted, I think, if only by a discreet note in the program. I realize amplification is a loaded issue in opera houses. Personally, I join those opposing it. But I can see why it might be necessary in this case, and if the house hides that, it looks as if they feel they shouldn't be doing it.
During the curtain calls Brancoveanu in a nice dad kind of way picked his Little Prince up and put him on his shoulders to receive the crowd’s applause, and when he put him down Wayne, who was probably less than half the size of the baritone, made as if to pick up Brancoveanu in his turn. Very sweet moment. Maybe more so because it felt like a truer and freer and more affectionate interaction between adult and child than the performance did – no lessons about loving, just a loving act unself-consciously performed. I wish my feelings weren’t so mixed. Lovely, and maybe too much so. Sweet, but maybe too long for the sweetness not to cloy. Childlike, but maybe tipping over into the childish too often. Anyone who loves this book would likely love the opera as well. The children in the audience really seemed thrilled, and I feel like a spoilsport even saying anything critical, but I've been to children's operas that could also be felt deeply and unreservedly by adults (for example, the ENO's staging of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel presented by SF Opera a few years ago, with its fish-headed waiters and concentration on hunger.)
The Little Prince ends with a chorus about letting your heart be your guide, though I was a little mystified by the references to the Little Prince’s laughter (if he laughed during the opera, or if his laughter was represented musically, I missed it). The chorus itself, and I’ve already mentioned how lovely the choruses in particular are, struck me as a late-blooming example of oddly Victorian uplift, though the sentiment is one that the Victorians themselves satirized. I mean, I can’t be the only one whose heart has ever misled him – right? I saw people sobbing at the end, and I was moved to well up a bit myself, while still retaining my skepticism about what the chorus was saying. Such is the strange power of music, separated from the words and sheerly as sound, to slip beneath our conscious thoughts and even our deepest constructions of the meaning of our lives and to stab us in spots where we didn’t even know we were vulnerable. But I don’t know if people were crying because of what they were feeling, or because of what they felt they could not feel.