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Glow precedes 'The Golden Ticket' debut

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 4, 2010 - Opera lovers lament that few operas engage both children and adults.

Sunday evening (June 13) Opera Theatre of St. Louis hopes to begin to fill that gap. That night the Loretto-Hilton Center's lights will go up on the world premiere of a family opera: "The Golden Ticket."

Iowa native Peter Ash and British writer and librettist Donald Sturrock created an opera based on Roald Dahl's 1964 fantasy book "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." 

It's a cautionary tale with lots of melody, laughter, dancing, some poignant, thoughtful moments, plus just enough scary ones to keep a kid's interest. The opera's 22 scenes set a snappy pace for kids used to video games. No nightmares here; all ends happily.

" 'The Golden Ticket' is a gorgeous sophisticated opera with a beautiful message," Timothy O'Leary OTSL general manager told the Beacon at "Golden Ticket's" first rehearsal. "And it fulfills a missing link in the opera repertory: a family opera that appeals to children and adults. We need more than 'Hansel and Gretel'."

Four seasons ago, Opera Theatre of St. Louis presented Engelbert Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel," and in 1993, it presented Massenet's "Cinderella." Some opera lovers were almost giddy at opportunities to bring children to serious operas that both children and adults could enjoy. Just as St. Louis Cardinals fans look forward to taking children to their "first" baseball game, the opera buffs were eager to pass along their great pleasure and passion for opera to the youngest generation.

In mid-October, "Golden Ticket" will make its European debut with five performances at Ireland's Wexford Festival. Might it become "The Nutcracker Ballet" for opera? Over the past decade and half many major music and theatrical leaders have become cheerleaders for "Golden Ticket," which is drawing new visitors and many critics to St. Louis.

This opera launch has a head start in popularity because its story is familiar to three generations of kids worldwide. Dahl's book has been published in 32 languages and has sold more than 14 million copies. Twice it has been made into movies.

Sturrock's plot adds a few characters and drops a few of Dahl's. None should upset kids' fantasies. Most changes make the story more stage worthy. A couple of additions make the plot more logical to adults.

Chocolate Vs. Cabbage

The story begins simply. Charlie Bucket is an orphan, living in a spare cottage with his four grandparents. Outside his front door, the scent of chocolate wafts over from Willie Wonka's nearby chocolate factory. Inside, the Buckets' one-room cottage stinks of cabbage soup -- the family's only food.

They are so poor that the four grandparents all sleep in the same bed -- neatly two at the head of the bedstead, two at the foot.

Michael Kepler Meo, an 11-year-old boy soprano from Portland Ore., sings the role of Charlie. He is the opera's only child soloist. Michael won high praise for his work in "The Turn of the Screw" in both the Portland and Houston Grand operas.

In the first act, as Charlie observes his four grandparents sleeping, his aria asks whether they long to "escape far away" and to "soar through the air on magical wings, and see wonderful marvelous secret things."

At OTSL's final "Spotlight on Opera" discussion Michael sang: "What are they dreaming of? What are their plans? I think of all they've seen in their lives. Are they bored? Are they tired? When they were young did they feel what I feel? Think what I think?"

Although Willie Wonka's candy factory produces the best and most creative candy in the world, it is a mystery. Human employees were fired 20 years ago and work is now done by creatures called Oompas Loompas, sung by an adult chorus. Turkish chipmunks, sung and danced by a children's chorus, serve as the factory nut inspectors.

The opera takes its name from the five golden tickets that factory-owner and self-proclaimed wizard Willie Wonka placed in five of his millions of chocolate bars. The five children who can wave a golden ticket win a special tour of his factory, with its swirling chocolate river, neon-colored hard candy mold and magic glass elevator.

Ash Adores Opera

Ash's music includes affectionate spoofs of several familiar opera styles as well as both melodic and cutting edge 21st century music. It is accessible but demanding on singers. Willie Wonka is sung by Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch in his company debut. He'll also sing the monumental title role of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" here next year. Okulitch has sung widely in the U.S. and at Milan's Teatro alla Scala. He soon goes to Buenos Aires' Teatro Colon to sing "Don Giovanni."

Soprano Tracy Dahl (no relation to the book's author), who sings the gum-chewing Violet Beauregard, is a St. Louis favorite. She was Madame Mao in OTSL's production of John Adams "Nixon in China" in 2004 and is still warmly remembered for a triumphal turn in the title role in the OTSL 1990 production of Donizetti's "Daughter of the Regiment."

"The Golden Ticket" opens just after three of the five tickets have been found. Those three winners and their parents explain how they won their golden tickets. Lord Salt, for example, bought crates of Wonka bars, stopped his factory's production and forced his workers to unwrap chocolates until a golden ticket was found for his daughter Veruca.

In Dahl's story, luck smiles on Charlie. Sturrock and Ash deliver a ticket to Charlie in a more sophisticated way. A candy stall vendor has been watching the kindly Charlie, who only once a year has a $1 for candy. When the boy discovers a $1 bill near the stall, the chocolate bar he buys "happens" to have the fifth and last golden ticket.

That candy-stall seller is Archie Know. Three hints for middle school and older "kids": Costume designer Martin Pakledinaz dresses both Archie Know and Willie Wonka in outer garments cut from deep sour cherry-color fabric. The 6'4" bass-baritone Okulitch plays both men. "A. Know" is Wonka spelled backward!

Those who sing the five winning children on the factory tour do satirical send-ups of famous opera types. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera as the spoiled Veruca Salt intentionally sings slightly too high in a hysteric style found in several operas. The stutters of egomaniacal Mike Teavee, sung by a countertenor, evokes Handel. Chocoholic Gussie Gloop sometimes echoes Wagner.

"This is written by someone who adores opera," said the production's conductor Timothy Redmond about the 502-page vocal score.

Kid Spoilers Are The Bad Guys

Disobedient children who chew gum constantly, nag parents with "gimme, gimme," watch too much TV, or pig out all day on sweets are big losers in this opera. For example, nut-inspecting Turkish squirrels declare Veruca an empty-headed nut and she swooshes into the icky garbage heap. It's a cautionary tale for overindulgent parents, too. Willie Wonka saves his harshest words for parents, who neither discipline their children nor teach them to be considerate of others first.

Costume designer Martin Pakledinaz makes visual jokes that can help little kids distinguish one character from another. Business mogul Lord Salt becomes a Donald Trump look-alike, with longtime company wig master Tom Watson producing a "comb-over." Set designer Bruno Schwengl provides the business mogul Salt with a Trump-like Tower.

Pakledinaz dresses non-stop, gum-chewer Violet Beauregarde and her dad in glitzy Texan versions of ranch gear. Schwengl builds them a Dallas "palace." When tenor Gussie Gloop sings about his "love and his passion" for his "daily sweet ration," his gluttony is underlined in a British public school uniform with too-tight Bermudas and a blazer that fails cover his girth.

Audience members might get sweet cravings. Video designer Greg Emetaz will super-impose images of flowing chocolate that he shot at two fine St. Louis chocolatiers: Bissinger's and Kakao's. Waving brown satin will create a Kabuki-style chocolate river. This might be the show to leave the menthol cough drops at home and carry chocolate drops.

Rewriting and Grant Writing

After about 13 years of patiently writing, rewriting, pumicing and polishing their opera. Ash and Sturrock are eager to see it fully staged. It's had lots of support and some famous cheerleaders but OTSL is the first company to produce it.

Felicity Dahl, the author's widow, who runs the Dahl Foundation, talked to various British theater people offering a commission to make "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" into a musical.

Music lover Sturrock has written about music and musicians for the BBC and made two documentaries about Roald Dahl, but his day job is artistic director of the Roald Dahl Foundation. After writing lyrics based on "Charlie," he showed them to Peter Ash, a composer and conductor who has worked on some of Felicity Dahl's projects.

Ash suggested that Sturrock might compose an opera rather than a musical. Though neither had ever written an opera before but they hunkered down.

British director Trevor Nunn, then at the Royal National Theatre, became intrigued with their idea. In 2001, the Royal National used their music and script in a private "workshop." British conductor Simon Rattle got on the encouragement bandwagon.

Some musicians from the Manchester (England) Camerata played at the workshop and were impressed. They asked to give a concert version of the opera. Singers stood and sang without acting, sets or costumes. Its warm reception prompted the British National Endowment for Science and Technology and the Arts to provide a grant to make a studio demo-CD of "Golden Ticket" opera excerpts.

By an odd coincidence, the narrator who explains the plot between arias on that demo CD is Welsh actress Sian Phillips. She's in St. Louis this spring singing Madame Armfeldt in "A Little Night Music" at OTSL.

In 2005 shortly after Lawrence Edelson founded a nonprofit group to encourage new operas called the American Lyric Theatre, he heard about "Golden Ticket." Well aware of a need for a fresh family opera, he commissioned its completion. His group funded two more polishing workshops in New York, the first in 2007; the second last year.

Edelson became the show's U.S. evangelist. He gave the British CD to OTSL general manager Timothy O'Leary. The musicality of the CD impressed O'Leary, who had loved the story as a boy. That was about two and a half years ago.

O'Leary shared the CD with James Robinson, OTSL artistic director. Almost every week he gets a new opera score and occasionally a CD, Robinson said in a ho-hum voice. While he is pleased that composers are writing operas, he told the "Golden Ticket" cast at its first rehearsal three weeks ago, most of them are "not very good." However, this CD demo had a note from O'Leary. Dutifully Robinson listened. He played it a second time and was completely taken with it, he said. Shortly afterward, he and OTSL Music Director Stephen Lord were on a long car trip and Robinson slipped the CD into Lord's car CD player.

"We were gabbing when Stephen stopped cold and said 'What is that?' I told him that is the next world premiere that Opera Theatre should do," Robinson said.

And, so it is. Robinson, Lord and Timothy Redmond, the conductor for the OTSL premiere, continued to work with Ash and Sturrock at the second New York workshop and for the past 14 months to tweak for the stage.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and St. Louis-based Saigh Foundation, the St. Louis Charitable Foundation, OTSL's Rudolph W. Driscoll Endowment and Emily Rauh Pulitzer made the opera's premiere possible in St. Louis.

Over the years Ash, the various creative teams and virtually all the funders talked with passion about how important it is for children's first impression of live opera to be fun and exciting and have music of fine quality. To work as a family opera, adults also should be uplifted and have fun, too.

A great family opera should illustrate that words only go so far, but music can express deeper emotions, meaning and catharsis in the same story. St. Louisans of all ages can listen and see what Ash's music has done to make Charlie's story soar. The opera world is watching.

Patricia Rice, a freelance journalist, attended and covered OTSL's 1976 opening night "Don Pasquale" featuring Ron Raines. 

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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