The operatic adaptation of the popular Canadian story shows the power of youth opera.
Like any great children’s story, there’s more to “The Secret World of Og” than meets the eye. On the surface, it’s a lighthearted story about a group of siblings who discover a hidden world. Beyond a trap door in their playhouse, tiny green creatures called Ogs have stolen bits and pieces of their lives and are using them to live out a series of role-playing fantasies.
Look a little deeper, and there’s more than just a fun fantasy romp. The Ogs are a mirror for modern society, and their stolen human elements offer an outsider’s look at pop culture, celebrity and the things we deem valuable.
This Saturday, Nov. 12, the operatic adaptation of this popular Canadian children’s book will receive its U.S. premiere with a performance by the Sarasota Youth Opera. Composer Dean Burry will return to Sarasota for the performance, after his 2008 U.S. premiere of “The Hobbit.”
But “Og” will also be something of a world premiere. When the Canadian Children’s Opera Company first commissioned the piece from Burry in 2010, he composed the work to be performed on two pianos.
For its debut at the Sarasota Opera House, Burry worked to create full orchestration to better fit the larger venue and cast of 85 singers.
Now, he says, the piece of children’s literature that first grabbed his attention in 2010 will come to life as vividly as it did in his imagination. Wood blocks, fiddles, whips and ride cymbals bring to life the story’s pirate scenes, cowboy scenes and James Bond-inspired scenarios.
“It was a real joy,” says Burry. “The full orchestration allows so much color to show through, and the world of Og becomes so much more immersive. As a culture, we have these bits of musical shorthand. So with just three jangly notes on a piano, you’re instantly in a cowboy saloon. Or with a few lines of seductive jazz, you’re in a James Bond story. Each world in the story has its own soundscape.”
Stage Director Martha Collins says besides the sheer number of children in the opera, one of the biggest challenges is that the children won’t hear the orchestration until a week before the performance.
“You see their eyes light up the first time they hear it,” she says. “It adds a whole new theatrical element. You can tell them all day, ‘This will be a bassoon.’ But once they hear it, you can see it click.”
She says there’s a misconception that youth opera is of lesser quality than traditional opera, but anyone who’s seen a Sarasota Youth Opera can attest otherwise.
“We hold them to the same standards,” she says. “These are incredible, full voices. Last year, at the prologue to ‘Brundibar,’ the whole audience was in tears. How exciting is that?”
Sarasota Opera’s dedication to youth opera and its resources are part of what make Burry excited to return to debut the fully orchestrated “Secret World of Og.” But more than that, it’s his own love of the art.
“It’s a unique art form in and of itself,” he says. “You’ll be surprised at the level of talent. Children can do what adults can’t. The analogy I use is a pennywhistle. A concert flute has a larger range and is a more advanced instrument. But when you want a pennywhistle, no flute can replace it.”