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Review: 'Golden Ticket' is a little too shiny

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 14, 2010 - Last week I was walking through the KETC-TV building where the St. Louis Beacon has its office, and was ambushed in the lunchroom by a member of the Orthodox Opera Society. She wanted to know what I thought of having "A Little Night Music" performed by Opera Theatre of St. Louis. I said I thought it an entirely appropriate choice, a brilliant choice in fact.

She didn't agree. With emphatic karate-chop-like gesturing with her hands, she enumerated her objections to the show, starting with the usual "It's not an opera," and concluding with the complaint that actresses - actresses! - not singers were given two important roles in a show while perfectly talented opera singers were out of work. There was no changing her mind, no arguing that in fact those actresses were perfect for the roles of Desiree and her mother, Mme Armfeldt.

I imagine conversations beginning with "Isn't it terrible" echoed frequently through the echo-y halls of the Orthodox Opera Society, last week. There, repertory-choice infractions are catalogued zealously along with arguments for and against the use of original languages and black-mark files full of singers who have gone for the high notes and cracked. I find it all dreadfully tedious, almost as tedious as listening to grown men and women arguing about the World Cup.

On Sunday evening (June 13) the orthodox should have been pleased. Then, Opera Theatre mounted "The Golden Ticket," an opera by Peter Ash (music) and Donald Sturrock (words) that obeys all the superficial rules, such as the prohibition against spoken dialogues. The opera -- and oh yes, it is an opera -- is based on Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

My rather dim view of it has nothing to do with rules and everything to do with intention. Furthermore my distaste for "The Golden Ticket" has everything to do with telling the truth, as best you can, in the atmosphere of art.

If we are to summon all the resources required to mount something as complex and potentially powerful as an opera, we should intend that it be not only musically and visually magnificent and stirring but that it intend, as well, to describe and to clarify great human issues.

That is a stern requirement, and pushes works that are a lot of fun off the stage in favor of those that are focused with great precision on situations in which we, as players in contemporary dramas and catastrophes and tragedies, find ourselves.

I would not argue that we be otherwise orthodox and demanding that everything that reaches the stage be profound as the intentions of Tchaikovsky in his magnificent "Eugene Onegin" or even in the lighter but nonetheless richly textured "Night Music." I would say, however, that generous amounts of thought be given to the choices available in the repertory before selecting something as intellectually thin and dishonest as "The Golden Ticket."

The show, as theater, has its moments. Great costumes. Hilarity. Music that is rather OK, although wince-causing in its many derivative passages. The decor is ingenious and engaging. Act II, where the action picks up, redeems some of the tedium of Act I. The singing is terrific; the cast is fresh and infectiously happy in its work. Bravos all around for them.

Nevertheless - to use a cliche that has been applied to "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" over and over -- the calories are empty. Nothing sticks to the skeleton of intelligence; nothing provides the sustenance of meaning. Worse, since this piece is aimed (at least in part) at bringing children to the crucible of opera, the message it presents them is bogus..

In the end, sweet, darling, rule-obeying Charlie gets the key to the Wonka Factory because he has been good, and that rule-following goodness appeals to Mr. Wonka. The bad children, those who've vexed him, lose big. But let's look around. Reality is not chocolate candy wrapped in gold foil, it is oil spills, dissembling, graft, equivocation, pusillanimity.

Fairy tales, gentle reader, do not come true in 2010, if indeed they ever did. If we look around us, the more likely, more truthful lesson is that the bad children -- the spoiled, narcissistic, selfish, inconsiderate, indulged and pampered children -- are the winners. The good child is sent empty away. Cynical? Perhaps. But no more cynical than telling children of all ages, including this superannuated child, that goodness confounds all.

The opera house is one of the few redoubts where serious questions can be asked and hard-to-swallow pills are distributed. Were I to choose, I would dismiss the genial good fun of the Oompa Loompas and request instead that management send in the clowns.

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