‘The Little Prince’: flight of imagination

Artistic director Justin Ralls, who conducts this weekend’s Opera Theater Oregon’s production, sees Saint-Exupery’s story as “a metaphor for that revitalizing world of imagination and creativity”

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

This weekend at downtown Portland’s lovely Dolores Winningstad Theatre, Opera Theater Oregon premieres its new production of The Little Prince. That’s the whole run, so if you’re going you’d better get a move on. The opera—with libretto by British playwright Nicholas Wright and music by British composer Rachel Portman (best known for her award-winning film scores and the music Jim Henson’s The Storyteller series)—is sung in English and based on the popular novel by French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

This is the second season with OTO for artistic co-directors Justin Ralls and Nicholas Meyer, the composer-singer team who brought us Ralls’s Two Yosemites for their inaugural season with the independent opera company last year. Joining them in this year’s production are some of the area’s finest singers. Superstar mezzo-soprano Hannah Penn plays The Fox (a raisonneur sort of character who gets most of the best lines); composer, Resonance Ensemble bass-baritone, and ArtsWatch contributor Damien Geter sings The King (and one of the baobab trees). In the starring roles, we’ve got baritone and Aquilon Music Festival founder and festival coordinator Anton Belov as The Pilot, and tiny soprano Catherine Olson as the titular prince. It’s worth going to just for the vocal cast.

Belov and Olson in OTO’s ‘The Little Prince.’ Photo: Theodore Sweeney

Portman’s score is, well, Portmany—melodic, bright and a little moody, heavily indebted to normal classical music—and I look forward to hearing how Ralls handles another composer’s music, having only heard him conduct his own. He is a fine composer in his own right, student of UO-based composer Robert Kyr and one of many younger voices who are finally beginning to bloom (Nokuthula Ngwenyama and Andy Akiho also come to mind). OTO will premiere his new opera, Song of the Most Beautiful Bird of the Forest, next season.

Ralls is also a passionate advocate for creativity as a form of resistance, as evidenced in his brilliant and prescient 2015 essay “The Power of Creation in an Age of Destruction,” an impassioned and well-reasoned manifesto that you should take a moment to read—after you’ve finished the following interview, that is. Ralls’s answers have been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.

The Little Prince, Verdi style

In redefining the mission of Opera Theater Oregon we [artistic directors Ralls and Meyer and executive director Lisa Lipton] wanted to focus on contemporary works, work that is in English specifically to reach our audience, works from diverse composers, and works that aren’t necessarily represented.

The Little Prince was on our radar, and we all reviewed it and thought it would be a great fit for us in our second production. Two Yosemites was a big work, and pretty heavy in its content and its musical language. We wanted to not repeat that, but have something that opens it up to an even larger audience and attract people that had never been to an opera before, and younger audiences.

Catherine Olson plays the title role in Opera Theater Oregon’s ‘The Little Prince.’ Photo: Theodore Sweeney

The Little Prince was ideal for us because of the accessibility of the music and the variety of roles. There’s ten-plus characters, but those characters don’t sing an entire opera—they have cameo appearances. So we’re able to feature a lot of different singers with a very practical economy of means. We’ve been talking about it as “The Little Prince, Verdi style.”

We wanted to take a different direction and make it more of a grand opera in a chamber music format, featuring singers in a variety of different ways without them having to devote a whole season to learning a very complicated role. Granted, the stars—the pilot and the prince, Anton Belov and Catherine Olson—definitely do carry the show. Olson in particular, I think, is gonna steal the show. She’s just been doing phenomenally, and it’s really her feature.

Creativity and Imagination: a bulwark against the unraveling

I see the retrograde forces of our society making war on the people and on our culture. That translates to things like arts education and cultural literacy. We describe classical music and opera in terms of market failure, but it’s really education and access. If people are given the opportunity to learn and participate, and the resources are allocated to create a thriving arts scene, people do love this music and participate in it, and respond to it, and it becomes a vibrant part of our culture. I believe that even if you’re not an opera fan or a classical music fan, to have those institutions thriving in your community benefits you even if you never attend the opera. Those people who are singing and working are teaching as well, supporting their community—it’s a win-win all around.

OTO co-artistic director Justin Ralls conducts ‘The Little Prince.’ Photo: Theodore Sweeney

So our endeavor and our project I see as trying to create a bulwark against the unraveling of our social systems. It’s not abstract to me: I see it all very clearly as one thing. I see a performance as a tonic to our social problems, which is challenging, because classical music is wedded to money, and the elite, and all these things that are problematic in our society.

I think the [Little Prince’s] message is fundamentally anti-materialist. I think that Saint-Exupéry picked up on the poverty of being that the modern age had ushered in between the wars, so all of these characters are archetypes of a modern adult life focused on vanity, wealth, materialism, and self-aggrandizement — all of these things that are not at the core of the human spirit, which is the work of the soul.

“Anything essential is invisible to the eye”

I don’t think the book is for children at all. I think it’s for adults. It’s to remind adults of the inner child, of the active imagination. Children don’t have these existential problems: they experience the world in a fresh way, they don’t have all the judgements and neuroses built up. I think of a Stravinsky quote, ‘the only people who understand my music are children and animals.’ I think that translates very well to the opera stage, which is still full of animals and children.

The Little Prince, for me, is a metaphor for that revitalizing world of imagination and creativity that we all have but lost sight of. The central message of the story is “anything essential is invisible to the eye,” and that things are not what they seem. You have to have vision. The spark of imagination and creativity, that’s what we need as a society to move us forward, to solve our problems. We need that.

Damien Geter and Catherine Olson in Opera Theater Oregon’s ‘The Little Prince,’ which runs this weekend at Portland’s Winningstad Theatre. Photo: Theodore Sweeney

I think we need a tonic of live theater and performance, and that we can have a transcendent experience just being in a room and experiencing a story. We have so many screens, and so many distractions, and so many entertainments. Opera should take us out of the world and put us in something more transcendent. Experimental opera is better than no opera at all, and even experimental opera that fails is better than the hundredth production of something we’ve all seen.

I hope people take away a message that we can envision different potential realities, different potential futures, and I think that’s the large point for all of the arts. And I hope they have a transcendent experience, that they are moved by theater.

The future of classical music

I think that if we are to have a future, thriving society, vibrant arts and classical music will be a significant part of it. I think that’s what’s important, not necessarily how classical music is going to change—because it will change, and adapt, and go this way and that way. One trend I’m seeing is an increasing gap between the large institutions, which have a certain model and way of doing things, and a huge army of smaller companies, ensembles, composers, musicians that are doing it themselves and redefining everything and cultivating new audiences. I hope that collectively as a society we can support that and encourage it across the arts. I hope that the classical music of the future will belong to the people.

Here in America especially, we have so few traditions and rituals that withstand the quarterly cycle. Hardly anybody remembers the music of ten years ago, twenty years ago. Classical music, and the craft of classical music, resonates across time and space. It doesn’t need to be justified, it justifies itself. Granted, it shouldn’t be a museum culture—it should be something that’s living and being reimagined. But there’s a through line: throughout all of Western culture, the classical music tradition, and opera, is a really beautiful and positive one for our communities, and still very relevant.

Opera Theater Oregon’s The Little Prince runs Friday-Sunday at Portland5 Winningstad Theatre. Tickets and information online.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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