Thursday, December 6, 2007

Beasties and Ghoulies

Do you ever get tired of taking opera seriously? Do you ever grow weary of listening to opera queens and critics who bitterly trash a performance according to their hidden personal agendas? Then ask yourself this simple question. When was the last time you attended an opera just to have fun? Not to judge how well a beloved diva polished off her high E-flat, not to marvel at some revered conductor's musical insights and not to be overwhelmed by a composer's music. Just to have fun.

Has it been too long a time? Then perhaps you should have been in Missouri last month when the Lyric Opera of Kansas City opened its season with a double bill of Mozart's The Goose from Cairo and Oliver Knussen's Where the Wild Things Are. Neither of these one-act operas could ever be called the weightiest piece of dramatic literature. Neither has music which could rival the most sublime moments in Don Giovanni, Die Meistersinger, Otello or La Boheme. But Jesus Christ, are they fun!


The plot of L'Oca del Cairo centers around one of those convoluted pre-nuptial situations in which everyone in the cast wants to marry someone other than who they were supposed to marry. This amorous chaos is resolved when a mysteriously psychic goose appears on the scene; an animal who predicts disaster for certain pre-arranged marriages and bliss for other, previously unannounced couplings. When I interviewed author/illustrator Maurice Sendak at his home in Connecticut last spring, he was desperately trying to figure out a way to make the goose in Mozart's opera work properly. To accomplish this, he needed to design a ten-foot tall creature which could hold two people, waddle out onstage, sing, squawk and basically look as if it were alive.

What Sendak and his equally brilliant collaborator, Paul Fowler, finally delivered was an absolute triumph of stagecraft. Kansas City's goose not only batted its eyelashes, craned its neck, rolled its eyeballs, flapped its wings and appeared to waddle on cue, it often seemed to take on a life of its own. After the performance, an inside source informed me that the person operating the goose's movements from within had been a bit timid during rehearsals. However, after being told that the big bird needed to act a bit more like an operatic diva, the animal's behavior changed markedly. Could have anything to do with the fact that during rehearsals the goose was nicknamed Renata?

In any event, I particularly enjoyed Roberta Gumbel's spunky Auretta and John Davies' rubber-faced Chichibio. Glenn Siebert's Biondello and Karen Beardsley's Celidora were attractively sung, too. Under Hal France's baton (and largely thanks to Frank Corsaro's slick direction) the cast went through Mozart's merry little romp with a great deal of spirit on opening night. The goose, of course, walked off with the show and a good time was had by all.


Everyone in the opening night audience knew that Mozart's rarely-performed L'Oca del Cairo was merely a curtain-raiser to Oliver Knussen and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Based on the children's book for which Sendak won the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1963, the opera's hero, Max, is a violently rebellious child who hangs his teddy bear, decapitates his toy soldiers and threatens to eat his mother. Once the bratty little boy has been exiled to his bedroom without dinner, his bed posts sprout palm leaves and magically begin to grow.

Soon, Max has embarked on a deliciously wicked adventure in which he encounters a smoke-breathing sea serpent while en route to a fantasy kingdom. Eventually, he tames a horde of ferocious ten-foot-tall "wild things" with names like Tzippy, Bernard, Bruno and Moishe, who roll their eyes, gnash their teeth and dance by the light of the full moon. Since so many people have either grown up on Sendak's book or read Where the Wild Things Are to their children, as soon as these incredible beasts begin to romp around the stage, the audience goes bananas. Opening night in Kansas City was certainly no exception.

Indeed, some people may have been so entranced with what was happening onstage that they could easily have underestimated the craft behind what they were seeing. Visually, and musically, Where the Wild Things Are is quite an impressive dramatic achievement. As designed by its author/librettist and staged by Frank Corsaro, it not only captures the spirit of Sendak's original book, in many ways it makes Max's mischievous adventures even more wicked and enjoyable than on the printed page.

Special credit goes to soprano Karen Beardsley for her performance as Max. Dressed in the child's wolf suit and wallowing in bad behavior, Beardsley was a true delight. While this opera offers her a wonderful role, it also tends to leave the soprano black and blue from diving through windows, jumping up and down and generally creating havoc onstage. I wish her a quick recovery.

To date, Where the Wild Things Are has only been seen in the United States in St. Paul, Minnesota and Kansas City, Missouri, which boggles the mind. This is the perfect vehicle for any opera company or commercial theatrical producer to mount as a Christmas children's show. Visually, it's a bigger treat than the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey circus and, if produced properly, the 45-minute one-acter could easily become the opera world's answer to Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. Why anyone has waited this long to produce it as a festival-style Christmas event beats the hell out of me. I loved every single minute of Where the Wild Things Are and (with or without Renata the goose) can't wait to see it again!

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 23, 1986.

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