Brendan Tuohy

‘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.”

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Portland Symphonic Choir review: magnificent melange

Triumphant Oregon premiere of composer John Muehleisen's massive 'Pieta' combines varied musical styles and poetry to respond to social ills

By BRUCE BROWNE

John Muehleisen 90-minute Pieta is a mélange – in a good way – of all sorts of musical gestures: Byzantine chant; Catholic and Eastern Orthodox hymnody; Bulgarian hymns; and familiar chorale tunes, many based on tunes melodies from J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion. Too, there is plentiful use of borrowed music, from a Civil War song by George F. Root to quotations from Bach, and a short motif from early baroque composer Antonio Caldara’s Stabat Mater. Muehleisen is certainly an equal opportunity borrower.

Since its Seattle premiere in 2012, Pieta has received several significant performances and, is receiving nationwide recognition. The composer was on hand to participate in and to witness Portland Symphonic Choir‘s rousing performance of its Oregon premiere in First United Methodist Church, on the last Saturday and Sunday afternoons in October.

Arwen Myers and Brendan Tuohy sang with Portland Symphonic Choir. Photo: Toni Wise.

An opportunity was missed, since Mr. Muehleisen was in residence with the choir most of the preceding week. Why not offer a pre-concert encounter sometime earlier in the evening/day? I loved what the composer had to say about his work; it was enlightening, and important. But this forced a 4:20 PM downbeat for the concert. Still, what followed was well worth it— for Muehleisen, for the guest conductor Erick Lichte, for the Portland Symphonic Choir and soloists Arwen Myers and Brendan Tuohy.

Soprano soloist Myers was radiant in the role of the Mother of Jesus, and probably, a universal mother to all. Her part demands a sprawling range, and an armor-piercing tone at times, all beautifully executed. In character throughout, Myers came through it all with a perfect aplomb, and pitch perfect musicianship.

Tenor soloist Tuohy has a silvery toned delivery. He too met most of the challenges of the score, but occasionally fought with the pitch center. After he returned to the stage following a dramatic exit in the first half of the show, the voice was perfectly in command.

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Northern Exposure: Washington chamber operas entice Oregonians

In Music of Remembrance’s 'After Life,' Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso duel; Vashon Opera's 'Albert Herring' serves up big fun on a small scale.

by ANGELA ALLEN and BRUCE BROWNE

Music of Remembrance’s After Life: Stein and Picasso duel over art and morality

by ANGELA ALLEN

How do art and moral responsibility intersect? Or do they?

That’s the endlessly intriguing debate enacted in the new chamber opera After Life, whose world premier was staged on a Monday in early May in a small-ish recital hall at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall. Two weeks later, After Life played to a sell-out crowd in San Francisco’s Temple El-Manuel.

After Life, complicated by the two-word interpretation of the title implying hungering for life, rather than the dreary afterlife, is a set piece for discussion of the Holocaust. And why not? Music of Remembrance commissioned the opera from rising-star composer Tom Cipullo, whose Glory Denied made Opera News’ top 2014 list. The 17-year-old Seattle-based organization’s mission is to keep the music of the Holocaust alive.

Catherine Cook and Robert Orth in 'After Life.' Photo: Michael Beaton.

Catherine Cook and Robert Orth in ‘After Life.’ Photo: Michael Beaton.

Directed by Erich Parce, the one act, 58-minute chamber opera comes fully alive with Bellingham-born poet David Mason’s elegant libretto and the three singers’ vigorously rendered portrayals of mid-century giants: “rose-is-a-rose-is-a rose” writer Gertrude Stein and short, yet bigger-than-life artist Pablo Picasso. The third character is a nameless teen-aged orphan, who at one time, sold a rose to Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas. She did not survive the Holocaust, though the artists did, and therein lies the drama.

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