I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I went over to Berkeley yesterday afternoon to see Rachel Portman's opera, The Little Prince, with a libretto by Nicholas Wright adopted from the short novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, produced by the San Francisco Opera and presented under the auspices of Cal Performances. The original text (supplemented by the author's own illustrations) is such a magical piece of storytelling, so unlike just about any storytelling one encounters in the United States, that the very thought of adapting it for stage performance, with or without music, struck me as a perilous undertaking. On the other hand in the context of my recent remarks about the "technique of disclosure" demonstrated by Conrad Susa's The Dangerous Liaisons (which presented equally daunting prospects for operatic interpretation), there are many ways in which one can read de Saint-Exupéry's text as a narrative of self-disclosure; and this appears to be precisely the reading that Portman, Wright, and director Francesca Zambello had in mind.
In the resulting strategy the greatest fidelity was to the author's illustrations, which came alive on the stage in ways that I could not have imagined. I was just leafing through my copy of the book, marveling at the dual relationship that has now been established: What I saw on the stage reminded me of what I had read many years ago, and now what I see on the pages of the book I had read remind me of what I had seen on the stage. Next in fidelity would be the overall structure of the narrative, including the fact that this is a first-person account, although the narrator is now addressing a group of children in pajamas, telling a bedtime story, rather than writing for a reader he cannot see. Then it was necessary to preserve the role of the prelude, which introduced the author as a bad artist. This seems like an apology for the crude style of the illustrations in the book until the act of drawing starts to figure in the plot. I suppose about the only criticism I might have about the adaptation is that it is a bit too faithful, taking over two hours to deliver an effect that might have been presented in about half the time.
However, that last observation takes me onto the turf of what this opera is not. That reduced time scale happens to be the approximate duration of L'Enfant et les sortilèges, a one-act opera by Maurice Ravel that may be the best example of what the publicity material for The Little Prince insisted on calling a "kid-friendly" opera. With a libretto by Colette, Ravel's little opera is an easily-grasped story of a bad boy converted to goodness by the harsh but beneficent forces of nature. It demands a rich conception of images from a time (1925) when special effects were realized as suggestions for the imagination rather than explicitly rendered; and it has enjoyed productions that leave viewers of all ages wide-eyed with amazement and wonder. It is hard to avoid memories of L'Enfant et les sortilèges encroaching on The Little Prince, but the two operas do not deserve to be pitted against each other.
This is important because Portman's compositional language is not particularly "deep" and therefore does not deserve to be compared with Ravel's. In terms of approaching any "grandeur" in "grand opera," it falls far short of other more recent works that have made such an approach, particularly Stephen Sondheim's score for Sweeny Todd. This is not a matter of sophistication, since Sam Shepard also made this approach with The Tooth of Crime, Operation Sidewinder, and The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill on the Eve of Killing his Wife, all of which can hold their own against the nineteenth-century warhorses. The problem is one of predictability, at least for those familiar with the operatic repertoire. Portman does not take risks with her score (not that Felix Mendelssohn did in just about anything he wrote). This contrasts with the oddball approaches she has taken with some of her film scores; so it may be that she toned down the risks (without falling back on a repertoire of familiar folk songs, as Engelbert Humperdinck did in Hänsel und Gretel) to hold the attention of young audiences.
Nevertheless, there remains the question over whether or not an opera based on a fantasy-meditation written in 1943 can hold the attention of contemporary audiences of any age. I am not going to fall into the usual trap of trying to second-guess what kids think about these days; but Saint-Exupéry's narrative, at least as it was conceived in this opera, may now be read by adults in a new context, which is that of Pan's Labyrinth. From one point of view, this tale told by a pilot of crashing in the middle of the Sahara before the modern age of sophisticated communication hardware is the story of a man facing the prospect of his own death; and, like the young Ofelia, he does that by lapsing into a world of fantasy with a highly-developed sense of its own logic. Since this pilot is now narrating to all of us, he does not make the "crossing from reality" that Ofelia does; but The Little Prince both comes into "our reality" and then departs from it along a path not that different from Ofelia's.
One final point is that, if a performing ensemble is determined to present an offering as "kid-friendly," then it helps a lot of have kids participating. Thus, there is an extent to which audiences of all ages find ways to identify with The Little Prince, whether with the Prince himself, the pilot, his "audience," which then becomes a context-setting "Greek chorus," or any of the stereotyped agents. This is a far more extended approach than that taken by Hänsel und Gretel; but, from our current perspective of music history, any new work will have to go a long way to top Noye's Fludde, Benjamin Britten's setting of the Chester Miracle Play, which comes closer than any other work I know in involving performers of all ages (including the audience that is expected to participate in singing the hymns). I had the good fortune to see a thoroughly captivating production of this one-act opera while I was living in Singapore, and have been seeking to reproduce that experience ever since!