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Maurice Sendak’s Opera Librettos

May 10, 2012

Karen Beardsley as Max in the 1990 LA Opera production of Where the Wild Things Are

The great author and illustrator Maurice Sendak passed away this week. While most of his obituaries mentioned his design work for operas and ballets, not as much attention was focused on the librettos and designs he did for two wonderful operas by Oliver Knussen. I reviewed the American premiere of Higglety Pigglety Pop! and the West Coast premiere of Where The Wild Things Are. Both operas have been sadly neglected by opera companies; I believe that Higglety Pigglety Pop! is one of the great operas of our time. Sendak’s operatic adaptations are brilliant, remaining true to his books, yet artfully and efficiently reimagining the stories for the stage.

This review first appeared in the La Jolla Light on June 28, 1990; I was very new at journalism then, and I’ve fixed a couple sentences that made me cringe upon re-reading. The original sentiments and opinions, however, remain.

Opera brings Sendak’s characters to life

The Los Angeles Music Center Opera recently presented two one-act operas by the noted, young British composer/conductor Oliver Knussen, with libretti and designs by Maurice Sendak. While Where the Wilds Things Are (1983) had previously been performed by the Minnesota Opera in 1985, the Los Angeles Music Center’s production of Higglety Pigglety Pop! was the American premiere.

Judging by the near capacity house Sunday afternoon full of eager children and smiling parents, one would never have suspected that one was about to listen to (Shudder! Gulp!) modern music. Sendak was clearly the attraction for the audience; many of the young adults were no doubt just as keen to see Max rumpus with the Wild Things as their offspring were.

No one seemed disappointed. Sendak’s world magically appeared on stage–his costumes and sets were literal translations of his drawings, and the difficult task of adapting his “once upon a time” narrations into dialogue was splendidly realized. Director Frank Corsaro and the largely brilliant cast of singers helped bring Sendak’s beloved characters to life.

Knussen’s scores struck me as his most colorful and accessible to date. Higglety Pigglety Pop! invokes many different composers—Mussorgsky, Debussy, Berg, Britten, and Mozart—while retaining a strong sense of Knussen’s personality.

The music frequently underscored characters and their actions, sometimes via leitmotives. There was “horse-and-buggy” music replete with sleigh bells. When Jenny, the canine protagonist, fainted (or pretended to), the music appropriately swooned in a mad, downward rush. When a doorbell was rung on stage, a horrendous clanging set the mood for Jenny’s encounter with the tantrum-prone Baby.

The music heard at the onset of the nursery scene was a sweet invocation of Mozart; when the devilish Baby appeared, one or two other innocent-sounding tunes were superimposed to form perverse dissonances. The Lion’s music was appropriately “terrifying,” using low brass, tam-tam, and cymbal crashes, and two powerful male voices singing in parallel. Knussen’s orchestration was always imaginative.

Cynthia Buchan’s portrayal of Jennie, the Sealyham terrier, was all the more impressive in light of her sweet voice always clearly audible despite its emerging from a small hole in a dog suit. She conveyed her character’s dramatic inflections well, including a growling gruffness during her spoken lines. After a while, it truly seemed as if there was a dog on stage magically singing arias.

Mel Whitehead (the Pig) was a strong bass; Greg Fedderly (the Cat), a brilliant tenor. All of the singers in both operas, with the exception of Dale Wendell’s pinched and screechy coloratura, had excellent diction, making the use of supertitles superfluous (except for one clever moment of staging where the supertitles were silently “reading” a playbill.)

Karen Beardsley’s bravura portrayal of Max carried Where the Wild Things Are. She was on stage throughout the entire work, cavorting rambunctiously and spunkily intimidating Wild Things, yet always in beautiful control of her voice. Knussen’s score owes a large musical debt to Debussy and Ravel, and much of the musical material is generated from the famous alternating dominant sevenths from the Coronation scene in Boris Godunov (a borrowing made parodistically apparent during Max’s own coronation). Max’s infamous Wild Rumpus sounded like an inventively mad mixture of Mussorgsky and West Side Story.

The 10-foot-tall Wild Things stole the show with their rolling eyes, sniffing noses, and palpably beating hearts. A sonically isolated booth in the pit contained five of the Wild Things’ voices, which were then broadcast over loudspeakers. The amplification worked well, making their snorts, inarticulate mumbles, and other nonsensical monster sounds heard. At times it sounded as if the Wild Things were singing in Yiddish–or what a child might misremember as Yiddish.

Randall Behr conducted the small orchestra with accuracy, bringing out all of the music’s drama. All in all, I witnessed two remarkable. well-performed works which displayed the fantastic, inventive whole that opera is capable of achieving through its summation of music, libretto and staging.

From the Glyndebourne opera production of Where the Wild Things Are, which you can purchase on DVD here.

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