Here’s a challenge that’s not for the faint of heart: Combine almost 100 young performers, ages 7 through high school, an outstanding cadre of professional designers, directors, conductors and orchestra players, give them an operatic world premiere to perform, and what do you have? Well, if you give that task to the Sarasota Youth Opera, the result will be a stunning production and two memorable performances of a brand new addition to the youth opera literature, performed by and for young people.
And that’s exactly what happened when the Sarasota Youth Opera gave the world premiere performances Nov. 11 and 12 of “Rootabaga Country,” a charming and challenging opera by Rachel Peters.
“Rootabaga Country,” based on stories by Carl Sandburg, is a whimsical tale told in a whimsical manner. A story of two children who have lost their mother, but have a loving father who takes them to Rootabaga Country, which the mother always loved. They arrive after a ride on the Zig Zag train through the land of balloons and circus clowns, finding themselves in a community where everyone delivers the mail to everyone else, thereby meeting new friends each day. Their mail deliveries involve three episodes: a fellow trying to wash the green sludge out of his hair, a misbehaving child, and a suitor who can’t woo his fair lady with his guitar because his hands are frozen. All’s well that ends well of course, as the children and father find that in Rootabaga Country everyone cares for everyone else, and that’s where they want to be.
This story is set to a score that’s demanding for everyone to sing, and its multiple scenes offer a technical puzzle. The handling and herding of all those young performers on stage while having them sing and enact the story could be a director’s nightmare, but it all came together nicely in a first-rate, highly professional looking and sounding production.
The names of the characters only complicate the initial confusion. The father, Gimme the Ax, played by apprentice artist Tobias Wright, and “Potato Face Blind Man,” performed by studio artist Costas Tsourakis, were the only adults in the cast of some 21 named characters with equally bizarre names, who were portrayed by members of the Youth Opera, as were scores of balloon people, circus clowns, and the local populace. All gave outstanding performances that ranked high in production value, vocalism and musicality. Everyone in this huge cast acted well, stayed within character and sang with good pitch and voice, giving evidence to the excellent training and coaching they receive in the Youth Opera program.
Peters’ score is both tonal and melodic, filled with shifting rhythms and meter, and her libretto is both intelligible and singable, while moving the story ever forward. It is imaginatively scored for a small orchestra, which never overpowered the singers, some of whom were discreetly amplified.
Conductor Jesse Martins and his assistants George Hemcher and Nicolò Sbuelz trained their singers beautifully, and Martins conducted a tight and musical performance. Each of the young singers in the leading roles was excellent, singing on pitch with clear diction, so that the provided surtitles were almost unnecessary.
The colorful and cartoon-like scenic design of Sheryl Liu, combined with the lighting and projections of Ken Yunker, and Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s fanciful and, at times, zany costumes, provided an excellent environment and canvas for Martha Collins to bring this opera to life. And bring it to life she did, from providing clever stage action for the principal singers, to making sure the large chorus moved on and offstage with precision and movement that was organic to the story being told on stage. While Collins always provides excellent direction for her main stage productions of the Sarasota Opera, her work with the Youth Opera borders on the miraculous — both clever and creative — keeping all that order when chaos could be the rule of the day.
The Sarasota Opera is probably the only opera company in this country that provides its Youth Opera with a main stage production, making all the artistic and professional resources, musical and technical, of its regular productions available for these young performers. Yes, that is indeed a luxury, and one well served by the training and experience it gives to these young students, as well as the sheer delight it brings to the audiences who attend the performances.