The world's newest opera is currently captivating audiences in Texas. The Houston Grand Opera, a company renowned for launching new works, is presenting the world premiere of The Little Prince, based on the modern French fable, with music by award-winning film composer Rachel Portman.
Rachel Portman wrote most of The Little Prince at her home in London, in her sound proofed basement office, with its 15-centimeter thick, vault-like door. But the first notes were sketched elsewhere on a camel, she says, 2˝ hot, hard days into the empty Sahara, with just a friend and a guide for company.
"I needed to go and hear the sounds of the desert," she said. "I thought I really couldn't write the music of Little Prince without knowing that, without having been there, in that vast space, with sand, and stars and sky above you. I decided the best thing to do, as I was experiencing the desert, was to begin writing."
The Little Prince is the now-classic fairy tale published in 1943 by French aviator Antoine de St. Exupery. In it, a pilot crashes in the African desert, where he encounters the Little Prince, a sensitive boy from a planet the size of a house. The innocent, observant child learns of vanity, greed, generosity, love, and death, from the pilot and other characters he meets on Earth and on the various asteroids he's visited.
Rachel Portman, who'd longed to write for voice, felt the multi-character tale suited the operatic form. Celebrated director Francesca Zambello did too, and, like Miz Portman, wanted to do a work for both adults and children.
"The book is very suggestive, surrealistic, not realistic, and one with an otherworldly quality and those are the adjectives frequently used to describe opera," said Francesca Zambello.
Plus, Miz Zambello admired Rachel Portman's lush melodic and harmonic music.
"The melodies had an accessibility," she said. "I hate that word, but it is true, accessibility means something that goes straight to the heart. And I found her music did that."
Nate Irvin, the talented 11 year-old boy-soprano from Minnesota who sings the Little Prince, says the music also perfectly suits the theme of the story.
"That one sees clearly only with the heart, the main premise of the book," he said. "And that all you see is just a shell, it's not the person dying, it's just the body isn't walking around anymore."
The Little Prince's death is suggested at the opera's end, when a snake appears and offers to return him to his planet. The snake, sung by tenor Jon Kolbet, is emotionless, powerful, sinister.
"We don't want him to be evil in any way," said Jon Kolbert. "But there is a balance between sinister and calming, and loving and inviting, let's say. When the snake comes to take him away, Nate says 'no, I'm not ready yet. Come back tonight when my star is bright.' If the snake were mean, evil, he wouldn't necessarily listen to the Little Prince."
Throughout the opera, it's the pilot who listens to the Little Prince. And just as the boy learns about life, the pilot learns from the prince that, in the book's best-known quote: what is essential is invisible to the eye. From the pilot's opening aria, the audience senses he understands that in his heart, for while the character is stranded in harsh surroundings, his imagination soars.
Baritone Teddy Rhodes, from New Zealand, says this is his toughest aria in the entire 2˝ -hour opera.
"I had like 3 big chunks of music right at the opening of the show," he said. "So it's in a way, my responsibility to get out there and grab the audience. Got to suck them into it immediately. 'Cause if you don't it's an uphill battle for everyone else to come on and follow a dud. You don't want to follow a dud on stage."
Most opening night critics agreed that Mr. Rhodes and the Opera itself, were not duds. The Fort Worth Star Telegram called its impact on the audience "extraordinary," saying The Little Prince may enter the international repertoire permanently. But Toronto Star critic William Littler wasn't so sure.
"This is closer to Broadway genre music, closer to Andrew Lloyd Weber than it is to Giacamo Puccini," said William Littler. "Great music? Far from it. Effective musical theater? By all means. It's as though everything was going to sound nice. And I think this has an extraordinarily high quotient of niceness. Which sometimes leads to diabetes in the end."
But that doesn't bother Houston Grand Opera director David Gockley. After all, he says, The Little Prince is a sweet and innocent story.
"It can exist with sweet and tonal music," he said. "I happen to love it. I see the way audiences respond to it. I don't care whether it's passé or over conservative or whatever. We have an objective of moving our audiences."
After The Houston Company's performances of The Little Prince this month (June), the opera will be produced in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Boston, Massachusetts. The Washington D.C. and New York City operas are also reportedly interested in presenting it.