Opera Theatre fans have a very important date coming up with 'Alice'
An opera with the lyric “My ugly baby is now a beautiful pig” can be called a lot of fun things but certainly not stuffy.
That line comes from “Alice in Wonderland,” which opens Wednesday at Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
When: 7 p.m. June 17
8 p.m. June 13, 15, 21, 231 p.m. June 19
Where: Loretto-Hilton Theatre, Webster UniversityTickets: www.opera-stl.org/
Note: The Beacon pops the corks after the opening show for the composer, the singers, the orchestra and everyone at the opera in the company’s pavilion on the lawn. Admission to the Beacon’s premiere performance party is free for ticketholders at the June 13 performance.
Lunch music concerts
Company lead singers perform
All at 12:30 p.m.
June 11, Kirkwood Presbyterian Church
June 18, Bonhomme Presbyterian Church in Chesterfield
It’s the American premiere of the 2007 opera by composer Unsuk Chin and librettist David Henry Hwang, based on the classic dream story by Lewis Carroll.
This is Chin’s first opera. Much of Chin’s work has been written for voices and electronic and classical symphonic instruments. The Korean-born, longtime German resident worked on “Alice” from 2004 until 2007 when it had its world premiere in Munich. In 2010, she organized excerpts for soprano, mezzo-soprano and orchestra so it would have wider performances.
American Hwang has been called the “most produced living opera librettist.” He’s worked with Philip Glass on four operas including “The Shore,” which got wide attention for its New York Metropolitan Opera production. Hwang is more widely known as the Tony Award-winning playwright of “M. Butterfly,” a modern twist on Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” His play “Chinglish” is on Broadway now.
This “Alice” retains many of the delights from Carroll’s book: Alice’s tumble down the rabbit hole, the chaotic croquet game with live flamingos “mallets,” spooning mock turtle soup insensitively in front of the Mock Turtle, the Mad Hatter’s never-ending tea party. The drama includes Alice’s trial on a trumped up charge that she stole tarts -- and the baby that turns into a pig in the arms of the ferocious Queen of Hearts.
It is an opera for our global world. We count about nine flags over this opera: based on a tale by a Brit, composed by a Korean, who lives in Germany, who got her idea for the story when her Hungarian mentor György Ligeti died without finishing an opera on the story. Ligeti was born in Transylvanian. The librettist is Chinese-American, who has won acclaim for redoing an Italian opera set in Japan. Its German premiere was followed by its only other production, in Switzerland.
Coming to St. Louis
When OTSL artistic director James Robinson was in Munich in the summer of 2007, he saw several “Alice” ads and had a night free. So he went. He enjoyed the opera. On reflection, he found the German production way too dark. He didn’t like that singers’ facial expressions were hidden by masks. Puppets were used for some animal characters.
A few years later, opera critic Heidi Waleson asked Robinson, among others, to name the “most memorable” 21st century opera he’d heard. No one could name an opera they had worked on. Robinson named “Alice.”
Opera Theatre General Director Tim O’Leary asked Robinson about doing “Alice” here. “Absolutely,” Robinson said, who began to plan with OTSL music director Stephen Lord.
Others medium size companies might have pointed to the reasons not to present this work. Chin’s score called for about 100 musicians in the pit. Only the largest grand opera houses can accommodate so many players and pay them.
Leaders of many of those big houses don’t trust that they have a fan base to support contemporary opera. St. Louis opera audiences are known for being open to contemporary opera.
Lord and Robinson met with Chin and offered her a commission to tighten the orchestration to about 50 players. Lord said she realized it would make her opera available to many more opera companies.
When “Alice” opened, Chin wrote, “My music is a reflection of my dreams. I try to render into music the visions of immense light and of an incredible magnificence of colors that I see in all my dreams, a play of light and colors floating through the room and at the same time forming a fluid sound sculpture. Its beauty is very abstract and remote, but it is for these very qualities that it addresses the emotions and can communicate joy and warmth.’’
Carroll's familiar words
Hwang said that he used much of Lewis Carroll words. But modern audiences would not get all the original references.
For instance, one of the rhymes in the story is a parody of an Isaac Watts’ hymn for children: “How doest the little busy bee improve each shining hour? Carroll, son of an Anglican priest, no doubt had fun writing: “How doth the crocodile improve his shining tail?”
So, in the spirit of Carroll, Hwang felt free to delight with updated satire. Hwang added a line mocking extreme high heels and invented a disparaging word, “Disnified.”
Hwang insisted that Chin’s name be included as a librettist because she originally wrote the words for the opera’s prologue and epilogue. Those were not based on Carroll but were reflections on her own childhood.
“I wrote very few stage directions because directors just change them,” Hwang said at the OTSL Spotlight on Opera series in May.
Conductor Michael Christie said that he had thought the opera was “dark” partly by reputation and partly by studying the highly innovative score with its many low notes. Once in rehearsals, that idea evaporated.
“I find it exuberant,” he said.
O’Leary called the imaginative music “as colorful as looking into a kaleidoscope.”
One widely acknowledged reason OTSL does contemporary music so well is that the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra has the experience, talent and enthusiasm to take on a challenge. And Chin’s score is one.
“I got phone calls from (Symphony) musicians about the music saying, ‘Is this for real?’” Christie said. Bits of the score call for non-traditional use of instruments including breathing into, rather than blowing into, the brass. It’s heavy on a wide variety of percussion.
But he finds the sound to be interesting. Sometimes it’s lyrical, not unlike Debussy. For a few bars, the singing evokes medieval choral chant. A trio screeches the word “Wow” to carry the story forward.
Ashley Emerson, who sings Alice, got the score a year ago and found its mixed meters and other innovations intimidating on the page. Once she worked on it and figured its sometimes nontraditional symbols, however, she found “almost an extra reward when you get it into your body,” she said in an interview Wednesday.
She said she appreciates the music's variety, its melodies, the creative sound-scape atmosphere for Wonderland. At times, Alice seems suspended, which fits the story, she said.
“Alice in Wonderful is a crazy story, so it’s only right that Alice would sing at the extremes of her range,” Emerson said.
Staging a squirming Caterpillar
As staged originally, no caterpillar appears on stage. Rather, a clarinet plays notes that mimic a deep throaty vocalization of Caterpillar’s famous line, “Who Are You?”
For the St. Louis production, stage director Robertson and conductor Christie help the audience out. As the clarinetist plays, dancer Sean Curran will writhe languorously on a mushroom in a costume that evokes a caterpillar.
OTSL’s costume designer James Schuette chose to dress the animal characters in Victorian era “people” clothing with just enough animal ears, noses or tails to indicate whether they are the White Rabbit, Dormouse or Dodo.
Set designer Allen Moyer gives the story a library set that evokes a fine Oxford house – a more modest and slightly askew version of PBS’s “Downton Abbey.” Alice falls asleep reading and some dreams will be projected over bookcases.
Cast of familiar singers
Emerson, who sings Alice, delighted St. Louis audiences last year as Marie, the title role in Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment.” Emerson, like many fine bel canto singers, easily moves her trained vocal control to the tricky demands of modernist operas. In “Alice,” she has to hit a high E flat, she said.
In Atlanta, she sang the spoiled brat Violet Beauregarde in “Golden Ticket” which had it world premiere here two years ago. While in the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program she made her professional stage debut at the Met in “The Marriage of Figaro.” Last season, she returned there as Papagena in “The Magic Flute.”
“When you sing more established roles, like Susanna in (Mozart’s “Marriage of) Figaro … there are certain traditions you observe because singers have always done something in the same way," Emerson said. "Since I am just the third singer to do this role, I have a lot of freedom."
Now that she has got the role under her skin, she'd enjoy singing "Alice" again. "There is definitely potential in this opera I hope it continues (to be produced)."
Tracy Dahl, a St. Louis favorite, will add her exuberant bel canto voice as the Cheshire Cat. (The Cheshire Cat may have been born in a boy’s daydreams during dull sermons. When Carroll was a child, his father was the vicar of St. Peter’s Church in Croft-On Tees, in Cheshire region of England. High up in that Anglican church is a stone carving of the head of a smiling cat – no body, just a head.)
Countertenor David Trudgen, who sang the television-addicted Mike Teavee in “Golden Ticket,” returns to sing two big eared roles: the White Rabbit and the March Hare.
Bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock, who sang the terrorist Mamoud last season in “Death of Klinghoffer,” sings the Mad Hatter and the duck. Soprano Julie Makerov makes her OTSL debut as the Queen of Hearts.
The large cast has many small roles giving Gerdine Young Artists a chance to soar or, given Chin’s score, a chance to test their low registers.
“The notes are either very high or very low, with not much in between,” O’Leary said.
OTSL is known worldwide as an energetic company that excels at world premieres and American premieres. Opera Theatre has presented 22 world premieres and 23 American premieres, the highest percentage of new work in the repertory of any U.S. company. Next year on June 15 the company will present the world premiere of a joint commission with Jazz St. Louis: “The Champion” by New Orleans Jazz great Terence Blanchard and Pulitzer-prizewinning playwright and actor Michael Cristofer.
Of all the four new productions this festival season this is the magical one to bring children, O’Leary suggested that children should be about 10 to attend. It’s a question of sitting though a performance; there is nothing to offend, Hwang said.
Adventure for all ages
Conductor Christie, who has a 4-year-old daughter, loves the opera. As he works on it, he says he keeps thinking “how fleeting childhood is to today’s kids.”
But all on the staff stress that this is not an opera just for kids. Proof of its adult appeal came from a St. Louis boy who grew up on Locust Street just west of Jefferson Boulevard in the 1890s. T.S. Eliot said he had recalled Alice’s fruitless struggle to unlock a gate to a peaceful rose garden gate as he wrote his poem "Burnt Norton"
“Footfalls echo in the memory,
Down the Passage we did not take
Toward the Door we never opened
Into the Rose Garden”
Within a short stroll from the site of Eliot’s boyhood home, “Alice” production videographer Greg Emetaz shot Emerson tumbling down a “rabbit hole” which will almost magically appear on stage.
Here’s puzzle for you: Where was it shot? Hint: Thousands in this town that was once “first in shoes” happily have slid down this chute, too. That will make it an only in St. Louis production.