High flying with Saint-Exupéry
A scrim of aerogrammes falling from the sky shades the middle of an enormous round portal like the window of an old fashioned ship, which in turn frames the front of the stage. A man enters dressed as an aviator from between the World Wars. He is followed and surrounded by children in striped pajamas and nightgowns, slippers on their feet. Addressing them, he begins his story of how when he was a child the pictures he drew were never understood by adults.
As he goes on, the children morph into stars, holding lights near their heads and singing about what stars see. A sandstorm, they sing. The scrim falls from the portal, and through it we see a small plane crashed on the undulating sands of the desert.
So begins Cal Performances and San Francisco Opera’s completely charming production of The Little Prince, an opera based on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved children’s book, meant to engage children (and adults) in the fantasy and luminous potential of opera. An undertaking it succeeds at brilliantly.
I confess that I’ve never liked the book, even as a child. I’ve tried to read it several times at different stages of my life, but I’ve never gotten past flipping through the book and reading brief excerpts here and there. Every time I start to read it from the beginning I never get farther than the elephant-swallowed-by-a-snake illustration, two or three pages into the story.
Similarly there are parts of the opera’s philosophical second act that I find disturbing. The little prince’s disappointment that his rose might not be entirely unique. The fox’s tutoring that love is a “taming” of the other: a taming that forms “a link, a lock, a tie.” That what gives the object of your love value, or creates depth of love, is the time you spend cultivating that object. All of this preaching glorifies—or perhaps, candy-fies—a narcissistic love. Perhaps that’s the best we can do in our competitive society—or even as humans, with our dark impulses and unknown genetic proclivities—but I continue to hope that we will search for other stories to teach our children.
This doesn’t mean I don’t recommend the opera. Au contraire. This production is effusive with theatrical virtues. The sets and costume design by the late Maria Bjornsen are superlative, with lots of sparkle and humor. Consider the object of the prince’s affection, the Rose: She can wrap her upper body in a petulant red cape that makes her look like a bud, or unfurl it into layers of sequined petals, her legs swathed in green, ending in green satin heels, leaves encircling her hips like a thorny vegetable tutu, her arms in green satin elbow-length gloves. And that gold wig encrusted with glitter … wow!
The lyrics by Nicholas Wright and music by Rachel Portman are wonderfully childlike, simple in tone and character but not simplistic. Portman’s insightful decision to make the little prince a child actor/singer, rather than a soprano disguised as a boy, and to have a children’s chorus as the glue adhering the many segments of the story gives the music and production a freshness and ethereal quality that loft the sentiments of the story into a realm that is both appealing and transcendent.
Not only was Tovi Wayne, the 12-year-old from Modesto who opened the production on May 2, graceful and skilled on stage, but also his voice was clear and pure, a vocal manifestation of the water that saves the aviator’s life at opera’s end. He alternates in the role with Tyler Polen. The San Francisco Boys Chorus and the San Francisco Girls Chorus sang splendidly.
Baritone Eugene Brancoveanu led the adults with a tender portrayal of the aviator. Besides being humungous, his voice has an unusually vibrant resonance and an emotional vibrato that cuts to the heart. Thomas Glenn used his attractive tenor voice for the roles of the Vain Man and the Snake. Lovely soprano Ji Young Yang was a flirtatious Rose. All three proving, along with most of the adult cast, what a treasure we have in San Francisco Opera’s Merola and Adler programs. Mezzo Marie Lenormand made a warm and playfully sassy Fox.
So the opera’s worth seeing, worth taking your children to. They will love it. You don’t have to accept the author’s philosophical assumptions (or mine) but can use them as a point of inquiry, if you like. Or, perhaps better, simply enjoy an enchanting evening.
A version of this article first appeared in the Piedmont Post