The Little Prince Lands at City Opera

Classic Arts Features   The Little Prince Lands at City Opera
Director Francesca Zambello, equally at home in the world's great opera houses, edgy experimental stages, and popular extravaganzas, returns to New York City Opera this month for the long-awaited New York premiere of her production of Rachel Portman's The Little Prince. City Opera's dramaturg, Cori Ellison, chats with Zambello about her role in bringing this timeless classic to life.

CORI ELLISON: An opera based on The Little Prince seems like an act of destiny, something that had to happen. Yet it wasn't so easy to pull off. Can you tell us how it all came to be?

FRANCESCA ZAMBELLO: In the spring of 2000, Rachel Portman came to visit me while I was working in Paris. She'd told Philip Glass, a mutual friend, that she wanted to write an opera, and he sent her to meet me and talk about it. So I opened my door and I saw this creature who looked like the Little Prince ‹-with this unruly blond hair, a waifish figure, and this incredibly youthful face. And Rachel told me of her passion for The Little Prince and of her great desire to write a work that would be children-friendly, family-friendly, new-audience friendly. These things resonated very strongly with me, and of course I loved the book‹It was the first book I ever read in French. So I decided I'd do everything I could to help her.

With that goal in mind, we set out, with Rachel's publisher, to secure the rights to The Little Prince, which was an extremely lengthy process, as such things often are. And through that process, we got to know Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's nephew, Frédéric d'Agay, who became a great friend and collaborator and eventually gave us the rights to do it, in English only, in English-speaking countries.

At that point, I brought in Nicholas Wright, the well-known British playwright, with whom I'd worked at the National Theatre on Lady in the Dark. I thought he was the perfect person to adapt this work because he's a wonderful playwright, great with structure, and a poet deep down. And it's tricky adapting a novel‹the book is not inherently theatrical. You have to create a dramatic urgency. So we set out to create the urgency of the Pilot's journey, that he had limited time because his water supply was running out. In one way, it's very much his story, and being a pilot, like Saint-Exupéry, he's sort of the author's alter ego.

Our other main concern was to actually involve children onstage. Of course, we knew that the Little Prince had to be a little boy. But we also created the device of the children's chorus, who are the de facto narrators. They play the stars, the planets, the birds, they play many characters, but they are really our conduit through the story.

We had to "audition" the piece along the way for the Saint-Exupéry estate. So after we finished Act I, I got some singers from English National Opera and brought them to Paris to sing it for the Saint-Exupéry heirs, and they were moved by it. And Frédéric d'Agay gave us a lot of artistic suggestions. At that point, I went to David Gockley, then the General Director of Houston Grand Opera, and told him about the project, and he agreed to produce the world premiere. So we found some very generous sponsors to underwrite the commission, and The Little Prince was premiered in Houston in May 2003.

The other great collaborator on the way was the designer, Maria Bjørnson. The estate also had to approve all the designs. Maria and I wanted to be true to the famous and charming artwork of Saint-Exupéry, but of course we needed to lift it off the two-dimensional page. That was tricky, but we devised a kind of a little world, a portal that represents all the planets in the universe and then the Pilot's airplane. Since the story is about a plane grounded in the desert, that was the other central image. But Maria's greatest contribution may be her amazing costumes, which capture the graphic style of the book but have an astonishing three-dimensionality, and a truly ingenious wit and humor. The sad thing is that Maria died, totally unexpectedly, before the designs were executed, and her associates finished the process. In a way, the result is the most fitting possible tribute to Maria because, at the base of the story is the notion that it is about people having to leave the earth and go off somewhere. I feel sure that Maria would really love the results, and the fact that it will now be seen in New York, alongside her Phantom of the Opera.

CE: That theme you mentioned also plays very touchingly on the story of Saint-Exupéry himself, whose plane disappeared mysteriously. And the fact that we're now doing it in New York is also a kind of homecoming, a full circle, because it's here that Saint-Exupéry wrote the book.

FZ: Initially we weren't allowed by the Saint-Exupéry estate to do it New York, but after we had a success in Houston, and after the BBC decided to film it, they gave us the rights to produce it in New York City. And what better place for it than New York City Opera, the "people's opera", a company dedicated to reaching out to new audiences.

CE: New works have a tendency to evolve when you take them to new places with new personnel. Now that you've done The Little Prince in several places, and filmed it, how do you feel it will develop here at City Opera?

FZ: We've had these wonderful auditions to cast two boys as the Prince, and two girls as the Rose. The biggest change is that this will be the first time a child will play the Rose. When we did it originally, the Rose was played by an adult soprano, but we realized if the Prince is a boy, why shouldn't his love interest be a girl? And it wasn't until we could do it here in New York that we were able to make the changes necessary to have a girl sing it.

This will be the fourth stage incarnation of The Little Prince, and as with all things, you keep working, refining, changing, trying to make it subtler but more eloquent. It's like the way you keep editing a piece of writing or tweaking a recipe.

CE: You've been involved in the creation of so many new works - musicals, operas, spoken dramas. What was your role, specifically, in The Little Prince, besides getting the team together and, of course, directing?

FZ: Since neither Rachel nor Nick had ever written an opera before, I worked with them as a kind of dramaturg, to create the structure. And also the sense of the cast‹simple things like the Pilot should be a lyric baritone. And I helped work out the whole notion of the children's chorus‹what they would do, how they would be the connecting thread of the piece. And I devised the whole notion of doublings in the cast‹for instance, there are four adult males who play many different characters‹kings, baobabs, etc. One major goal was trying to help them write an opera that would be produceable. Having worked on so many premieres, I've seen people create terrific things that are never seen again. Here I wanted to help create something that theatres can afford to produce, and so this is a compact piece. It has a cast of ten adults, two children, and that great children's chorus, and a smallish orchestration. I remember that when Maria and I were first working on the designs, we wanted to make a set that could be done on the grandest opera stages or in a school gymnasium. It was crucial to us that The Little Prince be accessible, produceable, populist. Those were our guidewords.

CE: I'm sure it was especially challenging to create designs for a piece in which not only the story but the visuals are so well-known and beloved.

FZ: Right now I'm working on a stage adaptation of the animated film The Little Mermaid, so that's a similar case. You have to be true to the images that people know, but you also have to convince the audience that they're looking at a flesh-and-blood version of that image. And you don't want to rob the individual performers of their contribution‹you don't want to stick somebody in a mask, or anything that's going to take us away from what they're giving us emotionally. You have to give the people inside the costumes the room to add their contributions.

CE: The Little Prince may be a children's classic, but it certainly has some very grown-up themes, doesn't it?

FZ: The themes are extremely profound, and the first signal of that to me was the incredible story of the people who underwrote the commission, Kathryn and David Berg. Here's an example of how deeply organic philanthropy can be. The reason the Bergs did it was that one of their dearest friends, Larry Pfeffer, had recently died of cancer, and on his deathbed, every day, he read The Little Prince. Because it's so much about letting go, that our souls live on, that it's what's inside us that's truly beautiful, how we treat nature and animals, that we see clearly only with our hearts. There are so many beautiful messages in The Little Prince, for adults as much as for children. I remember, the first time we did it, several of the chorus children came to me one day and said, "This is really about dying, isn't it?" But what a wonderful way of understanding it‹that the Prince lives on because he becomes a "star". All of this, but we still have the amazing humor of the book‹in the end, this opera is funny, witty, and charming, as well as touching.

Cori Ellison is dramaturg at New York City Opera.

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