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26.11.05

The Little Prince

Other Articles:

K. E. Watt, Rachel Portman and "The Little Prince" (WattWork, November 13)

Willa J. Conrad, An opera that won't scare the children (Newark Star-Ledger, November 14)

Ben Mattison, Photo Journal: Rachel Portman's The Little Prince at New York City Opera (Playbill Arts, November 15)

David Salvage, "The Little Prince" at City Opera (Sequenza21, November 15)

Peter G. Davis, Pilot Error (New York Magazine, November 28)
Rachel Portman's new opera, The Little Prince, was premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 2003. Francesca Zambello directed a new production at New York City Opera, from November 12 to 20. This is one of my favorite books for children, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, although its sensibility always seems to appeal much more to adults than children. (Three-year-old Mini-Critic could care less about this book right now, for example, but he will probably come around to it in a few years.) In fact, as Margaret Talbot showed in her excellent article on Roald Dahl's children's stories in The New Yorker this summer (The Candy Man, July 11 and 18, 2005), the stories that children actually love are often the bane of the adults in their lives. The opera's target audience was children, but The Little Prince is getting plenty of praise from adults, too. Anne Midgette gave a somewhat positive but fairly cursory review (From Grown-Ups, a 'Little Prince' for Children, November 14) for the New York Times:
Francesca Zambello has directed with a fine, sure hand. The young cast is decent, with Keith Phares getting a workout in the narrator's role of the Pilot and Robert Mack as a sound, sinuous Snake. Other good singers include Joshua Winograde and Hanan Alattar. Gerald Steichen conducts an orchestra so smooth it sounds unctuous. But that's really because of the score: eminently functional, pretty and (Ms. Portman being an adroit film composer) telling the audience what to feel at every turn. What it lacks is a real melodic gift: the tunes may stick in your head afterward, but they sound like jingles. Even more jingly are the clunky rhymes of Nicholas Wright's libretto, which shoves large blocks of text into the story to give the fine children's chorus more to do. Well and good, but the opera would lose nothing (except half an hour) by losing many of these.
Fred Kirshnit, who wrote a review (A Hummable Treat for All Ages, November 14) for the New York Sun, proudly claims that he has never read the Saint-Exupéry book and equally proclaims his disapproval of modern opera:
Rachel Portman, The Little Prince, Houston Grand OperaMs. Portman deserves high praise for creating a score of warm melodic inventiveness, with especially memorable music describing flying, both physical and fanciful. More important, she should be recognized for having the courage to paint her landscapes in the language of diatonic tonality, and for putting the lie to the notion that userfriendly music has gone the way of the dinosaur. She offers singable, hummable music. When was the last time that you read that about an opera composed after 1950?
The polemics of the reviewers often came out in their reactions to the music: Portman was often labeled, sometimes derisively, a "film composer." That term seems to indicate immediate comfort for those turned off by modernist dissonance and just as surely marks a sell-out composer to the high-minded. Of all the reviews, I most enjoyed the one by Justin Davidson (A kids' opera hits the mark, November 16) for New York Newsday, because he went in the company of an eight-year-old mini-critic:
Had I been alone at its New York City Opera premiere on Saturday, I might have smirked at the honeyed harmonies and "Greensleeves" turns of phrase, or sulked snobbishly that the adorably costumed creatures onstage had nothing on the magical menagerie in Ravel's "L'enfant et les sortileges." Instead, I was aided by the ears of my demographically correct son, who followed the adventures of his golden-curled alter ego and barely blinked in two hours. Most children's operas - "L'enfant" included - resonate less with kids than with adult imaginings of childhood. Portman, who wrote the soundtracks for "Emma," "Chocolat" and "Cider House Rules," has a film composer's feel for how to stroke an audience and how to nudge wandering emotions into line. "The Little Prince" is among the most direct and effective of contemporary operas, never trying to be something it isn't, never falling short of what it is.
A few years ago, Davidson wrote a Father's Day article about being a father and coping with his son's fears (Fear and Fatherhood, July 8, 2002) for Salon. It is also excellent reading. Given the success of this opera, my chances of being able to take my own Mini-Critic to see it one day are better than average.

14 comments:

Henry Holland said...

When was the last time that you read that about an opera composed after 1950?

Ah, so being a reviewer doesn't mean you also can't be an idiot too. Zzzzzzzzzzz....."all post-war music is like Webern or Stockhausen! Run AWAY!". Idiot.

Let's see, off the top of my head:

These Britten operas: Billy Budd, Albert Herring, Turn of the Screw and A Midsummer Night's Dream

All of John Adams and Philip Glass operas

All of Carlisle Floyd's stuff

All of Menotti's stuff

Barber: Vanessa

etc. etc. etc.

Garth Trinkl said...

Francophile ionarts probably has heard of Poulenc's Le dialogue des carmélites as well.

And there is also the completed and revised version of Prokofiev's War and Peace (Peace and War).

And also Jin Xiang's Savage Land (in Chinese), and Shigeaki Saeagusa's Chusingura (in Japanese).

Do you expect all music critics to be intellectually above average?

Charles T. Downey said...

I agree with you both, which should be obvious from my comment about the reviewer's comments in the post. Still, we must admit that many people, and not just this critic, perceive most 20th-century music in this (ill-informed) negative way. The critic should oppose and not perpetuate that bias.

Garth Trinkl said...

many people, and not just this critic, perceive most 20th-century music in this (ill-informed) negative way.

Charles, this broad statement about "most 20th - century music" isn't really true. Whenever the idiots with whom I sometimes converse elsewhere claim that the orchestra, in America, is stuck in the 19th c. (or 18th and 19th c.), I like to point out that more than half of the programming each season by most American symphony orchestras is by (admittedly first half) 20th c. composers.

I'd love to have the time to examine some recent listening and score studying lists of university and college "20th Century Music" Courses. (I found Richard Taruskin's 5 - Volume Oxford set rather myopic, in this regard -- as I have stated before.)

Charles T. Downey said...

Garth, my point was not that orchestras are not programming that music, which as you point out they certainly are, but that many audience members have a biased predisposition against it, largely through ignorance. I have spoken to many people who attend lots of concerts -- even some who have subscriptions -- who are quite ignorant of 20th-century music and routinely wish that their orchestra would never program it. There are similar biases against modern art.

I'm not saying that it's right -- because I am certainly opposed to it and do all I can as a teacher and now blogger to dispel it -- but that is the widespread misconception that underlies that critic's statement. Mind you, many artists and composers of our own time are all too happy to earn the scorn of audiences, which is a natural creative impulse. Challenge rather than appease, and all that. This is understandable but does not help the situation.

Garth Trinkl said...

I have spoken to many people who attend lots of concerts -- even some who have subscriptions --who are quite ignorant of 20th-century music and routinely wish that their orchestra would never program it.

Charles, do you really think that the blue-haired dinosaurs who think that Western music ended with Brahms (and not Elgar, Rachmaninoff, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Britten, Barber, and Shostakovich) are that numerous?? If you do, I think that we are in more of a problem than I thought, and ionarts has an even greater mission to carry forward than I imagined!

Where do Jens, Mark, Frank, Henry, and Andrea come down on this?

Charles T. Downey said...

You may be more optimistic than I am, which is probably good. But in my experience age has nothing to do with this attitude. In fact, young people can be among the most close-minded. This is probably only going to get worse, since so few children are exposed to classical music in schools anymore.

Garth Trinkl said...

I think that we all need to dust off that great 19th c. warhorse -- Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf -- and get PBS to broadcast it at least once a month on both television and radio.

(Thanks Charles and jens (and Frank and Mark) for all the excellent reviews.)

Charles T. Downey said...

Garth, ;-)
Come the revolution, we will put you in charge of the cultural re-education camps.

jfl said...

as a german, i think *i* should be in charge of the cultural re-education tends... oh... well, maybe better not. [imagine me with Dr.Strangelove gestures - a W.Rihm and H.W.Henze score in the other hand]

charles has experimented (i think it was him) with playing kids modern music in a film/movie context -- in which such music is most readily accepted and even enjoyed. so he has a very important point here, that much of the resistance (and there is much!) is attitudinal.

at the same time, much of modern music was the prerogative of the intellectual to enjoy... since it did not and did not want to (did not dare to) appeal to our first-order emotional sides. all of us discussing here may not think that the ivory-towerization of modern music of the latter half of the 20th ct. was necessarily a bad thing or is necessarily to be seen as an insult... but it is nonetheless true. those who think that Carter is "beautiful" music in any commonly held sense are delusional. those who think that all you need to do is play "Peter Grimes" to a chap and he'll see and hear 'beauty' are equally so. i heard so many horror stories about PG, i had my socks surprised off by its great beauty (i still prefer Hickox' recording wiht Langridge over the more famous Davis/Vickers recording... although there really isn't a bad one of that opera that i've come across). still that does not mean that we can denie that this isn't difficult music to most virgin ears... just like the flavours of game or truffles or pernod(!) are often too complex to generations treated and catered to with less demanding gustatory sensations. to pretend otherwise is probably not helpful -- but to excite the newcomers, the purple brigades, the reluctant youths by being passionate about those sensations once discovered for oneself, once 'understood' (preferably emotionally - but if necessary intellectually first), that might help. To that extent, I think that ionarts is doing its small share (and charles as a teacher and professor a whole lot more than that) and does so with enthusiasm.

jfl

Garth Trinkl said...

I didn't think that we were talking about Carter and Rihm, but about those pesky 20th c. composers forced down the throats of orchestral subscribers and patrons; composers such as ... Richard Strauss and George Gershwin! I can't imagine the truckloads of angry letters that the NSO is now receiving protesting Loren Maazel's upcoming all - Richard Strauss fest with the NSO in January. And didn't the Washington Post editorialize that 13,000 patrons new to classical opera hated the autumn screening of Gershwin's P & B on the National Mall?

Jens, children who have been introduced to Prokofiev's menagerie and Copland's Rodeo (or Del Tredici's Legend of Sleepy Hollow?) shouldn't have any problem with Peter Grimes (or Billy Budd or Midsummer Night's Dream).

I recall, eons ago, accompanying a group of Stanford U. freshmen to stand for the San Francisco Opera's production of Peter Grimes, and that the high culture neophytes had no problem with the music or the opera. Nor do I imagine that they swore off of 20th c. music forever after that evening. [I know that they didn't because later that fall some of the same students attended with me ... Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten and no War Memorial Opera House was torched.]

Did anyone read Alex Ross on David Robertson, in Saint Louis?

And Charles, please don't allow my current patron -- or my in-laws --to think that I am a revolutionary. I prefer them to know me as an institutional economist who dabbles in the arts.

[Jens, the place that I stay in Berlin was used by the allies for cultural de-nazification purposes. From 1933-44, it is where the lists of proscribed musical figures, including composers, were drawn up by the Nazis.]

jfl said...

I recall, eons ago, accompanying a group of Stanford U. freshmen to stand for the San Francisco Opera's production of Peter Grimes, and that the high culture neophytes had no problem with the music or the opera. Nor do I imagine that they swore off of 20th c. music forever after that evening. [I know that they didn't because later that fall some of the same students attended with me ... Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten and no War Memorial Opera House was torched.]

I don't believe people have a problem with R.Strauss - in fact, I think that more than 50% of the people attending R.Strauss concerts are NOT AWARE that he composed in the 20th century. (Ditto Sibelius) Your experiences are - as always - noteworthy and interesting... but I know that you know better than to draw conclusions from them about 'people in general'... our surroundings are not likely representative of typical concert goers - not even at Stanford.

Charles T. Downey said...

Garth, fine, you are not a revolutionary. ;-)

My favorite example is Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. If a work is included in a Disney movie, I think we can assume that it is fairly popular.

Garth Trinkl said...

Back to accessible and modern operas, I see that NPR's World of Opera is supposed to have broadcast, or will broadcast, about six modern American operas during the calendar year 2005 (or about 10 per cent, depending on how you count):

http://www.npr.org/programs/worldofopera/programlistings/

I don't know what the local (WETA-FM) broadcast schedule is. (It is substantially different than that linked above.)

I also see that NPR WoO is apparently (maybe?) ending the season with two children's operas -- Hansel and Gretel and Magic Flute.