Tulsa Opera 2018-19 Review: The Little Prince

A Meaningful Performance of Rachel Portman’s Modern Classic

By Freddy Dominguez

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” was a twinkle of light in dark times.  The author, a celebrated pilot and raconteur, wrote it while exiled from France in New York City during the Nazi occupation of his homeland. This helps explain the mood and tone of his book. Though delicate and charmingly illustrated, it is a melancholic meditation on loneliness and lost innocence. I reckon it takes the experience of adulthood (and more) to fully understand it.

The book, and the opera under review here, hinges on the relationship between The Pilot, whose plane has crashed in an African desert, and The Prince from a distant planet fretting over a beloved rose he’s left behind. Though magical in conception, the story is largely a critique of materialistic, unfeeling adulthood exposed through short tales about The Prince’s encounters on other planets with such archetypes as The Business Man and The Vain Man. Once on Earth he learns ultimate truths about life and death among animals, especially The Fox who teaches him that “one sees clearly only with the heart” and The Snake who ultimately kills him. The Pilot learns much about himself through his renewed engagement with youthful wisdom in the form of The Prince and his stories.

This limbo between imaginative leaps (talking animals and far-off planets) and the heaviness of its many lessons makes “The Little Prince” a very difficult piece to adapt. Musical versions in particular have struggled to find a balance between the very accessible sheen of the book and its profundities. Loewe and Learner’s musical adaptation in 1974 and a 2002 French musical by Richard Cocciante and Elisabeth Anaïs lean too much on schmaltz. On the other hand, a recent, beautiful song cycle by Sara Shoham, “Draw Me a Sheep,” is perhaps too somber.

Tulsa Opera’s production of Rachel Portman’s 2003 opera “The Little Prince” makes a strong case for it as the most effective, balanced adaptation of the book to date. A deeply invested and broadly talented cast together with the fine musicianship of the orchestra made the matinee performance I saw a thorough success.

Beguiling Music

Rachel Portman is best known for her highly regarded film scores, including  “Emma” (for which she won an Academy Award) and “Chocolat.” Her cinematic talent for atmospheric music serve her well in “The Little Prince,” especially in the short vignettes featuring The Prince and the characters he meets during his journey. Throughout, individual instruments emerge from waves of shimmering orchestral texture to delineate emotions out of an overall dream-like state.

Portman’s music, and the smartly adapted libretto  by Nicholas Wright, remains faithful to Saint-Exupéry’s overall vision. Like the book, this opera is not light. The original “Little Prince” is bloated with irony, but thin on levity. This poses problems for any current artist trying to appeal (at least in part) to children.  Portman and Wright succeed and even improve on their source material by exploiting the different registers of the story. They do not undermine the serious predicaments of The Prince and The Pilot, but there is a good deal of fun to be had along the way.

The encounters The Prince has on different planets and on earth are almost mini-operas unto themselves, many written with punchy rhythms that allow for full-body acting and even slapstick now and then.  

Portman also makes excellent use of children’s voices.  Along with the title character, a children’s chorus appears throughout either embodying stars or cranes in flight (transporting The Prince). By employing choral singing, the opera gives voice to unbridled and optimistic childhood in a way the book never really does. Though there is much ado about The Prince’s laughter and smile toward the end of the book, he never really comes across as that kind of kid. There is a big gap between what The Pilot tells us about The Prince’s childish demeanor and what we as readers/viewers actually see. 

The result is that the real laughs and the real warmth of the piece is less embodied by its protagonists than suggested by their contexts. Not surprisingly, the music for The Pilot and The Prince  seems to drag here and there. Although The Pilot has some delicious moments of unbridled lyricism,  in general his and The Prince’s “talkiness” together with the emotional homogeneity of the main characters is sometimes expressed in a restricted musical vocabulary.

Strong Performances

Lina Gonzales-Granados offered a textured reading of the score by paying close attention to orchestral colors and punctuating  myriad details. There is no doubt that her efforts kept this show together. Her hand often peaked above the pit. Clear and emphatic gestures kept everyone on stage and below it in consonance.

A gifted cast articulated many of the opera’s beauties and delights.

As The Prince, 13-year-old Dante Michael DiMaio was dramatically and vocally on the mark.  He carried himself with appropriate and consistent sullenness. The male soprano voice can sometimes sound tinny or too wiry, but DiMaio’s voice did not. His is a delicate instrument with a plush, velvet quality. As a result, he can shade phrases much more than many other young performers. He excelled with heartrending tenderness in singing about his rose.  

Will Liverman as The Pilot was without a doubt the anchor of the whole show. His is a darkly-hued baritone with the peculiar quality of depth and elegance. In the lower and middle registers the voice sometimes seemed a bit constricted, but the overall impression was powerful, even stentorian, but with a heart that beats. Above the staff in particular, he made some generous sounds that were simply thrilling. His treatment of the text was also exquisite. Crisp diction and subtle phrasing allowed him to convey the beauty of re-discovered childhood.

The supporting cast was superb, but two stood out.

John David Nevergall, a clear-toned tenor, was clearly having fun. As The Vain Man he hammed it up with tacky yellow suit and kazoo in hand. As the snake, he slithered on stage and sang  ominously.  

Christine Taylor Price, who participated in the Tulsa debut of “The Little Prince” as member of the Tulsa Youth Chorus 13 years ago, shined here as The Rose, singing and dancing with gusto.

Special note must also be made of today’s  members of The Tulsa Youth Chorus who sang with charm and apparent glee.

Important Images

The sets by Maria Bjørnson (from the opera’s first production) remain effective. Each act starts with two gently painted screens, one showing envelopes falling from the sky– debris from the Pilot’s plane– the other a map of Africa, where The Pilot is stranded. These are quickly raised to frame an undulating desert with a fallen airplane (more prominent in Act one than Act two).  The simplicity of the set allow the many vibrantly-colored costumes to pop. It also serves as a strong contrast with the many-hued sky enlivened in beautiful, often mesmerizing ways by lighting designer, Christopher Sprague.

There were also some magical effects.  A sprinkling of shiny confetti toward the end– I wish there had been just a little more– and fog effects travelling deep into the orchestra section at the start made for moments  of excitement and wonder. The flying Prince was also fun to watch.

Opera and Children

Before the National Anthem was sung and before the first notes of the opera were begun, Artistic Director (and composer) Tobias Picker  and General Director Ken McConnell took the stage for some prefatory comments and necessary thank yous. Picker also greeted the hundreds of children in attendance (many wearing colorful pajamas). He asked how many of them were attending an opera for the first time. Like good school children they raised their hands instead of clapping, so the answer was a little hard to gauge. From a quick look-around it seemed like a  majority. Picker underlined that many of them would remember this day and he insisted that they also remember their first opera was written by a living composer. The point struck me as important. For all the virtue of adapting canonical works (say, Mozart’s “Magic Flute”) to suit the linguistic needs and attention spans of children, there is something vital about exposing them to “modern” opera made to be inclusive of their tastes and interests. 

In front of me and my daughter there was a boy sitting next to his mother. He was clearly invested in the drama. He loudly and frequently asked her to  help explain different plot points and was visibly shaken by The Prince’s ultimate demise. My daughter did not have as visceral a reaction, but she joined the standing ovation at the end. Very little can compare to enjoying a show with my 12-year-old and contemplating a future generation of theater-goers blossoming right before my eyes.


ReviewsStage Reviews