National Sawdust has announced “A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears,” a new opera written by Julia Adolphe, as a Project-In-Residence for the 2018-2019 season. Adolphe is working with librettist Stephanie Fleischmann and adding a few new twists to the beloved children’s story written by Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist and author, Jules Feiffer, which will create an inspiring experience for both adults and young audience members.
“A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears,” published in 1995, was one of Adolphe’s favorite reads as a kid. Adolphe told OperaWire that Feiffer visited her elementary school when she was a child and read the book to her class. She was captured by the story and had Feiffer sign her own book to remember the magic of that day.
Adolphe has recently made a conscious effort over the past two years to spend time with herself via reading a good book. At this stage in her career and life, she is either always writing or with other people, so she decided to challenge herself by rediscovering her love for books. This decision has informed her music and helped her to grow creatively.
“I love to read and it is something that I did a lot of as a kid,” said Adolphe. Further exploration of the imagination via a good book has opened up a new world for her now as an adult, so the creation of Feiffer’s story into an opera plays perfectly into her creative process as a composer.
“The process of growing up is a lifelong process. Ongoing, ever-transforming and exploring all of the lights and darks of emotions, all facets of one self. The whole identity. Whether creating art or simply living life, one is always transforming,” said Adolphe.
When asked about the overall meaning behind “A Barrel of Laughs, A Vale of Tears,” Adolphe compared the complexity of emotional range and variation to the likes of “Alice in Wonderland.”
“The story and opera is for all ages, so that adults will be able to experience and gain from it as well as children. It covers vastly different terrains that are representative of the emotional worlds that the character experiences on her journey to adulthood. It is exciting and provocative,” said Adolphe.
In the book, Feiffer featured a boy that is afflicted with the ability to make everyone surrounding him drop to the floor in hysterical laughter, resulting in a kingdom where no work is accomplished. However, with full rights to the story via Feiffer’s permission, Adolphe is featuring a young girl named Izzy.
“There will be a children’s chorus, the opera’s storytellers, that will introduce Izzy (short for Isador), a young royal whose mere presence causes everyone around her to fall into fits of laughter. How can Izzy fulfill her destiny in this condition? How can she rule her kingdom one day in the not too distant future? King Whatchamacallit summons his daughter to the castle for an audience with J. Wellington Wizard. It’s time to get serious,” explained Adolphe and Fleischmann.
With the opera, Adolphe aims to challenge conventional ideas surrounding gender roles and relationships through her character, while also including a love affair between Izzy and another female character, Lady Sadie, that pushes the boundaries of stereotypes. Through this quest, Izzy gains necessary wisdom and ultimately discovers how to live her own life and experience relationships.
“The wizard determines that a quest, and the experience that comes with it, will cure Izzy of her affliction. He decrees that Izzy must travel to the ‘betwixt and beyond,’ a journey that will take her to the Forever Forest, the Dastardly Divide, the Valley of Vengeance, and the Sea of Malice. But how will she know when she’s gotten to where she’s going? Or when she’s found what she’s looking for? The wizard replies: You will know you have found it when no one is laughing,” said Adolphe and Fleischmann.
Developing the Music
With the music still developing, Adolphe is currently working with her team in order to decide which voice types will portray each character. She is most focused on writing the emotional content of the music and the full context of the story right now. Making sure that the voice types she will decide on are a representative of the each character’s complexities.
She is working closely with Elkhanah Pulitzer as the director and looking forward to a libretto workshop being held at Pasadena’s Boston Court Performing Arts Center this fall. Adolphe is grateful for Paola Prestini and her passion to launch and develop this project, which will debut at National Sawdust on June 13, 2019.