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Bringing Out The Inner Child

May 5, 2008

Some children's stories aren't just written for children. They're for adults too. From Aesop's Fables to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland to the Dr. Seuss classic, Oh, The Places You'll Go! kids books are packed with important life lessons for grown-ups.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's 1943 novella The Little Prince is no exception. Inspired by the author's career as an aviator, the book tells the story of a an airplane pilot who meets The Little Prince, an intense young man with a crown of golden hair, after his plane crashes in the Sahara Desert. The two become friends. From spending time with the Prince and hearing the boy's stories, the aviator learns to value what's important in life - and that adults have a lot to learn from children. The book has made a profound impression on many adults in the 65 years since it was published. James Dean could recite entire passages from the book. Morrissey is seen reading a copy in the "Suedehead" video. Saint-Exupéry's narrative has even become the subject of three operas - an artform that isn't exactly known for attracting minors.

Composer Rachel Portman and librettist Nicholas Wright's playful, family-friendly opera adaptation of The Little Prince recently arrived at U.C. Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall under the auspices of San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances. The production has enjoyed a great deal of popularity to date, having received its premiere at the Houston Grand Opera in 2003 and subsequent productions in New York (New York City Opera), Tulsa, Milwaukee and Boston, among other cities.

This retelling of Saint-Exupery's story is not hugely memorable from a musical perspective. Portman is best known as a composer of scores for such movies as The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, The Joy Luck Club and Emma (for which she won an Academy Award in 1997). Her music for The Little Prince sounds in many ways like a fillm score -- it plays a supporting role rather than takes center stage. Portman's music includes one strikingly humorous, short aria for the tenor playing the role of The Vain Man (Thomas Glenn in the case of this production). The scoring is sometimes playful. At one point, Portman employs the sound of a typewriter's clack-clacking keys. At another, a character on stage plays a kazoo (a whimsical glance back to Mozart's The Magic Flute perhaps?) The composer also spins fine, gauzelike textures for strings and gives the winds some lovely, mournful solos.

But though pleasant on the ear, the music otherwise more or less slides by unnoticed.

What makes this Little Prince such a wonderful experience, however, is the collaboration between all the artists involved. Portman's music blends seamlessly with Wright's cheeky libretto, written in rhyming couplets. Director Francesca Zambello's staging is nothing short of magical, making use of the entire breadth, height and depth of the stage and plenty of trapdoors. Designer Maria Bjornson's storybook desert setting with its cartoonlike dunes provides a simple yet striking canvas upon which Rick Fisher's lights powerfully evoke the rising and setting Sahara sun.

Best of all, the cast -- which features a chorus of 24 children and a 12-year old boy in the role of the Little Prince -- sings with sensitivity and passion without once veering into saccharine terrain.

No wonder this opera has received so many stagings over the past five years: It brings out the inner child in anyone who goes.

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