Opera is an art form that is typically paired with all things adult. Dressing to the nines, a fancy dinner, and a possible horse drawn carriage/buggy ride to finish out the evening. It’s the date some people’s dreams are made of. Yet opera is an expression of art that should be experienced by everyone no matter their race, gender, or age.
Sure, it would be rather expensive for a family of four to head to “the theatre” for an evening, but that doesn’t stop you from exposing your family to this grand musical art via the internet and your television.
We put together a list of operas that are especially appealing to children.
1. The Little Prince
Our first child-friendly opera was written by Rachel Portman, a rare woman composer on our lists. Based on the 1943 novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, which tells the tale of a pilot, a crash, and a Little Prince from asteroid B-612. The libretto was written by Nicholas Wright. It premiered on May 31, 2003, at the Houston Grand Opera.
The Houston Grand Opera commissioned Portman to create this child-friendly opera and Nate Irvin performed in the title role. Teddy Tahu Rhodes, an operatic baritone from New Zealand, performed the role of the pilot. The next performance was held in Milwaukee at the Skylight Opera Theatre.
This opera then made its way to the Boston Lyric Opera and then returned to Houston in 2004. In April of 2005, it was staged at the University of Kentucky in Lexington and in November of that same year at the New York City Opera. Other locations that have put on this show include the Tulsa Opera, the Santa Fe Opera, and the San Francisco Opera.
The BBC aired a production that had child performers chosen from 25,000 applicants, the process which was filmed for a show called Blue Peter. It was first televised on November 27, 2004.
This next child-friendly opera was written in the mid-1970s by John Rutter, a British composer, conductor, arranger, and producer. The libretto was written by David Richard Grant and the work was composed specifically for the voices of the Trinity Boys Choir, a group that is formed at the Trinity School of John Whitgift, or Trinity School, located in London. The premiere was conducted by David Squibb at the Fairfield Hall on March 14, 1975.
Based on the story of the botched assassination on the life of King James I of England and VI of Scotland more commonly known at the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The attempt was orchestrated by Robert Catesby and a small-town congregation of English Catholics in retaliation of James I’s persecution of them. The target was the Palace of Westminster and the plan was to set off explosives. Father Garnet, who heads the Jesuits, a male group within the Catholic organization.
3. Hansel and Gretel
Engelbert Humperdinck is the composer who gave us the musical version of a classic tale originally told by the Grimm Brothers in 1812. Adelheid Wette, who also happened to be the composer’s sister, wrote the libretto. Folk music was the inspiration for the harmonious melodies like “Abendsegen”, which is performed in the second act.
In fact, it was Wette who came up with the idea to create an opera out of the immortal children’s story and she first began writing songs for her children, which she had presented to them on Christmas. Humperdinck’s sister brought him her words and suggested he create music to accompany them. They worked on it and before they knew it they had an opera.
Hansel and Gretel was composed while Humperdinck resided in Frankfurt. It premiered in Weimar, Germany at the Nationaltheater and Staatskapelle Weimar on December 23, 1893, and has been associated with Christmas ever since. Richard Strauss, a prolific and renowned composer in his own right.
4. The Firework-Maker’s Daughter
Consisting of two acts this chamber opera has music written by David Bruce and a libretto penned by Glyn Maxwell. The inspiration came from the Philip Pullman novel by the same names. Lila is the center character and father makes fireworks. The story tells how she longs to break into the family business.
The Royal Opera House in London and The Opera Group got together to commission Bruce to create this child-friendly work. Opera North and The Opera Group along with Watford Palace Theatre and ROH2 co-produced the original run, which premiered in Hull, England at the Hull Truck Theatre in 2013. From there the production went on to tour the UK and then headed to New York City where they performed off-Broadway at the New Victory Theater.
A revival was staged in December of last year by one of the companies that originally commissioned the work to be composed, the Royal Opera House Linbury Studio.
5. Where the Wild Things Are
Maurice Sendak wrote and illustrated the timeless children’s book that served as inspiration for this next opera. Oliver Knussen took on the commission, offered by the Opéra National in Brussels, of composing a score that would suit this loved tale. Sendak was behind the pen that wrote the libretto as well.
It took Knussen more than three years to complete the score but the first premiere was given before it was reworked into its final version. November 28, 1980, was the first performance of the first version at Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels as Max et les Maximonstres. The composer reworked it and the final version premiered four years later in London at National Theatre by the Glyndebourne Touring Opera.
Minnesota Opera gave the United States premiere with Frank Corsaro directing in 1985. Two years later, that same production got the pleasure of performing Where the Wild Things Are at the New York City Opera.
6. The Vagabond Queen
Edward Barnes, an American composer who studied at the Juilliard School composed this child-friendly work that falls between the genres of opera and musical. Kate Peters is the performer who was kept in mind when Barnes penned this piece. The duo, after being granted a sponsorship by the Kansas Arts Commission to tour their state.
Kimi Okada directed and choreographed the original piece and this opera/musical has been reproduced for tours of several opera conferences and the campus of California State University. When Cal State Fullerton had the grand opening for their new performing arts center in 2009, they chose The Vagabond Queen for their performance.
Opera Pacific, University of Richmond, the Diamond Opera Theater/Hudson Chamber Opera, and the Los Angeles Opera have all restaged this kiddie work of music.
7. Ivan the Fool
Falling under the genre of opera-fairytale, this work consists of three tableaux, which translates from French to English as “paintings”, but it is our guest tableaux are the equivalent of acts. Russian composer César Cui wrote this work in 1913 while Nadezhda Nikolaevna Dolomanova scripted the libretto. The inspiration for the story was taken from a legendary Russian folk story.
The first act opens as Ivan frees his steed when he comes upon a clearing in the woods. He then takes all the goods he has in his cart out and begins to throw the precious grain his family sent him for onto the ground to feed the birds. Ivan’s family finds him and don’t hide their anger and Ivan is banned from having supper with them that evening.
More misadventure is in Ivan’s future like mushroom gathering and time spent finding his horse who supplies him with new clothing. He also competes with the other young men for the hand of the Tsar’s daughter. Who wins? Well, you’ll have to watch to find out.
Enjoy great full opera shows today here – just make sure to review the parental rating note on every title!
Cover photo: Donizetti’s L’elisir D’amore, by EuroArts Music & Arte/SWR