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New WNO Children's Opera a Flop

"And, lo, the unicorn knelt down at the manger, and touched its wondrous horn to the baby (Luke 2:18)."
Henry Wager (Angel, above), Patrick O'Halloran (Joseph), Catherine Martin (Mary), Jacqueline Echols (Unicorn)
in The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me, Washington National Opera, 2013 (photo by Scott Suchman)
(more photos)

If you have ever wondered if someone could make the story of the birth of Christ into something potentially offensive to Christians, wonder no more. The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me, the new children's opera presented on Saturday night by Washington National Opera in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, manages to make that simple, profound, life-altering story unrecognizably banal. This version, drawn from the book by British writer Jeanette Winterson, is set on the periphery of the Biblical story, following an angel's decision to choose the humble donkey to carry Mary to Bethlehem. Whoever this Mary is, she is going to have a baby, and he is apparently going to be pretty cool. We do not, however, ever hear his name.

Lest one think that this is simply aesthetic distancing or nondenominational nicety, Winterson's approach to the Bible has a clear purpose. As she put it quite well in an interview with the Paris Review: "I don’t accept the God myth of the church. I think it’s hogwash. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t accept the essential mystery of the scriptures and of the religious faith." So the donkey becomes the focus of Winterson's story, beating out the candidacy of the noble lion and the mysterious unicorn to carry Mary to Bethlehem and then to carry her and her baby, whoever he is, away from the threats of King Herod. As adapted in the mildly amusing, repetitive libretto by poet J. D. McClatchy, Winterson's story loses none of its jejune coyness, guaranteed to charm audiences without possibly offending anyone who might be put off by a religious message. The middlebrow tone is perfectly matched by the undistinguished score composed by Broadway arranger Jeanine Tesori, a mish-mash of lite jazz and formulas familiar from countless American musicals.

Introducing children to opera is a laudable aim, to be sure. Attempting to do so by feeding children something that is more representative of a Broadway sensibility is misguided at best and underhanded deception at worst. Some coloratura moments aside, presented mostly in a mocking, undercutting way, there is little in this work that will give the opera neophyte any understanding of what most operas are about. Opera is represented in The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me most directly when a character calls out for "an opera singer," after which a caricature of Bizet's Carmen appears, to sing loudly and be more or less laughed off the stage. (This should not come as any surprise, since it is often people inside classical music institutions who are, knowingly or not, hastening the genre's demise.) The orchestra is sized for Broadway, too, with four string players, two wind players (both doubling), horn, two trumpets, harp, one percussionist, and electronic keyboards -- giving none of the orchestral sweep of opera. Conductor Kimberly Grigsby is an opera novice, too, her most recent work being leading the orchestra of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark on Broadway. Only the librettist has any real experience with opera, having written libretti for Tobias Picker's Emmeline, Lorin Maazel's 1984, William Schuman's A Question of Taste, Elliot Goldenthal's Grendel, and Ned Rorem's Our Town, among others that are less known.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, WNO’s ‘The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me’ lacks suspense but has fresh energy and charm (Washington Post, December 16)

---, ‘The Lion, the Unicorn and Me’ and the quest for the childlike in children’s opera (Washington Post, December 15)

Moira McLaughlin, Bethesda boy stars in “The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me” opera at the Kennedy Center (Washington Post, December 10)
That the work is such a dud is hardly the fault of the cast, who made the best of what they were given. Fifth-grade treble Henry Wager sang with faultless intonation, and the help of a microphone, as the boy, picked out of the audience in the work's opening conceit (right across the aisle from where Miss Ionarts and I sat), who puts on a golden backpack with wings to become the angel. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin, who stood out in the supporting cast of last summer's performance of Approaching Ali, was beautifully maternal as Mary. Soprano Jacqueline Echols and bass Soloman Howard were impressive as the Unicorn and the Lion, polar opposites like the Queen of the Night and Sarastro in this little fairy tale. Soprano Lisa Williamson was a high-flying Flamingo, baritone John Orduña was a stalwart Donkey, and all of the WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists -- especially Deborah Nansteel (Cat), Norman Garrett (Elk), and Wei Wu (Innkeeper) -- acquitted themselves well, as did the adorable WNO Children's Chorus, well prepared by William Breytspraak. The production by WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello was handsome, with colorful and inventive costumes by Erik Teague and effective sets by Michael Yeargan, although I could have done without the painful flashlights and disco ball reflections shined into my eyes. What a shame that all of the expense and effort were wasted on such pop culture pablum.

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