Sarasota Opera is looking to the future by dipping into the past with the world premiere of an opera by composer Daron Aric Hagen, with a libretto by J.D. McClatchy, called “Little Nemo in Slumberland.”
My father was only 10 months old when the comic strips of Winsor McCay first made an appearance in October 1905, so there aren’t too many of us around who remember its timeless, futuristic, fantastical whimsy. In fact, tap most professed Nemo lovers these days and you’ll probably hear something about Jules Verne’s immortal captain or an adorable little fish. But, to find this Little Nemo, you needn’t plummet 20,000 leagues beneath the seas.
McCay’s Little Nemo is a flesh-and-blood boy whose dream life carries him far, far away from his little bed to the kingdom of Slumberland, which is somewhat in chaos because King Sol wants 24 hours of sunshine and that would mean no dreams — a terrifying thought to all humanity because (and here’s where the moral of this story kicks in), without dreams, we’re nothing.
Hagan and McClatchy have put together an opera for, about and with children that appeals to everyone. It also has everything in it, from high-flying Circque du Soleil-type aerial silk dancers, jugglers and stilt-walkers, to giants, monkeys with 12 legs, bunnies, pigs in tuxedos, an appearance of the Fruit of the Loom guys and, for one scene, more lawyers than the state of Florida would want to deal with.
The music is derivative at times, with strands of “West Side Story,” Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and a touch of the “Superman” theme popping up here and there, but, in this day and age, everything sounds like something else, so the interval of a minor seventh, for example, just automatically alludes to “Somewhere” in our over-stuffed heads. Still, Hagen has managed to create a fresh 21st-century sound that’s accessible, yet musically intelligent and gives the young performers a chance to learn how to successfully bridge the gaps in their vocal registers, deal with syncopated rhythms and accurately make their way through intricate tonal passages that would inspire even Verdi and Puccini.
Meanwhile, the action on stage — all taking place behind and above the performers — almost steals the show. Scenic and Projection Designer Michael Schweikardt, and Associate Projection Designer David Bengali, have taken this Svengali-like production — created by Sarasota Youth Opera in association with the University of Kentucky — to new technological heights with rear-projection scenery that is positively astonishing. The world tips upside down, stars shoot across the stage, comets and moons cross paths and, with some 50 “RPs” (rear-projectors of the space age), an opera house becomes an IMAX theater and the audience simultaneously holds its breath and gasps.
But even the “Star Wars”-type setting couldn’t compete with the kids. At the performance we attended Saturday, a very young and exceptionally-talented Pablo Gonzalez performed as Nemo. The word in the lobby had it that Pablo was under 10 years old. Whatever his age, he proved to be an exemplary actor with great musicianship and a lovely, facile voice that could make him a sought-after Amahl. Adriana Fernandez made charming vocal and dramatic work of the Princess; Sophia Masterson was an agile and fun-loving Flip; and Aubree Zern (Luminella), Devin Bradbury (Glimmerina), Skyler Stahlmann (Chrystalette) and Monica Gonzalez and Rachel Querreveld (Stars) were terrific.
Martha Collins’ stage direction for what could have been a three-ring circus (you try dealing with some 70 or 80 kids on stage!) was fresh, charming and clever. Steven Osgood held everything together from the “Little Nemo Orchestra” in the pit, to the massive vocal forces on stage. Ken Yunker’s lighting, Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s costumes and Anne Ford-Coates’ wigs made this an absolutely smashing and professional looking project.
Three other things must be pointed out. First, in order to keep the arts alive in America, collaborations are imperative. Sarasota Opera’s efforts to work with students from Booker High School, The Out of Door Academy and the Sailor Circus are a major step in this direction. It’s also very important to bring new audiences to opera and, seeing 2-foot high moppets running around the Opera House lobby with eyes bigger than moons was heartening and fun. Last, as “Little Nemo in Slumberland” proves, “new music” can be accessible and good, insuring that both younger and older ears are attuned to a musical future without fear.