With 'The Secret World of Og,' the Sarasota Opera showed youth opera at its finest.
A fall season highlight is the annual Sarasota Youth Opera production by the Sarasota Opera, arguably the only opera company to present operas by and for youth on its main stage every year. I’m always impressed by the quality of singing and acting and the ingenuity of everyone connected with these splendid productions. Not “children’s shows," but fully mounted productions with lighting, costumes, staging, an orchestra and all the stagecraft expected from a regular main-stage production.
This year’s journey to “The Secret World of OG”, a U.S. premiere, is a prime example of youth opera at its finest. The opera, based on the book by Pierre Burton, has both music and libretto by Dean Burry, whose charming opera “The Hobbit,” was produced by Sarasota Youth Opera last year.
The green people of Og live underground and have only one word, “Og”, in their vocabulary. Their world is one of make-believe and role playing, drawn from objects and books they have “borrowed” from children of the world above. Penny, Pamela, Patsy, Peter and Paul — known as Pollywog (this opera positively percolates with perky, profound alliteration) are children who delight in playing pretend.
Penny, Peter and Paul follow two of the green people down into a tunnel under their playhouse and are eventually captured by Ogs and rescued by Patsy, Pamela and Cheshire the dog in a series of escapades careening through that make-believe world.
These people of Og, beautifully sung and acted by at least 65 of the 85 youth opera members in the cast, have a great time singing and dancing an extended number using only the word “Og” in every possible permutation, which is priceless, then from time to time comment on the events in true Greek chorus fashion. Their only other words are from those characters in the books they have purloined from the world above and made their own.
The result is a perfect plethora of scenes with Ogs as Wyatt Earp, Captain Hook and Smee from Peter Pan, and rather famous spies, each scene flowing smoothly from one to the other with nary a pause or break in the mood.
This charming piece was brought to life by a talented group of young singers, including the five peripatetic protagonists: Katherine Herbert as Penny, Aubree Zern as Pamela, Dominique Cecchetti as Patsy, Samantha Lane as Peter and Ursula Kushner as Paul (Pollywog). Hunter Thorkelson is Earless the cat, and Astrid McIntyre is Yukie the dog. Important smaller roles were Griffin Stahlmann as the butcher, Pablo Gonzalez as the sheriff and Sky Stahlmann as Hook. Principal voices were discreetly amplified to help prevent oversinging, and it would have been a help to have the dialogue amplified, as well. The orchestra was ably conducted by Jesse Martins, who didn’t miss a cue, using Burry’s excellent orchestration commissioned by the Sarasota Opera.
Ken Yunker’s lighting of the extremely clever and cartoonish sets by Donna and Mark Buckalter enhanced the atmosphere of the opera from the playhouse of the children to the deep depths and caves of the world of Og. I continue to be astonished by the ingenious staging of Martha Collins as she directs these productions. All too often the staging of youth operas consists of “controlling traffic,” but each person on this stage was a definite character with every movement skillfully timed and executed in mood with the music. Collins’ choreography in the big chorus line was a crowd pleaser.
Burry’s score is eclectic but charming, bringing us ever-so-slight reminders of Copland, Prokofiev, a little Poulenc and a lot of Burry. The character scenes are scored in their styles — lifted on purpose from hoe-downs, pirate chanties and even a hint of James Bond — but all still Burry. Melodic lines are certainly within the scope of voices of this age, and they created lovely melodies while keeping the story moving.
It was a delightful evening, and the lower floor of the Opera House was packed with a lot of families, each seeming to have a bouquet of flowers for these young performers. And there is a moral: You can pretend to be whomever you want to be, but in the end —you’re only exactly who you are.