Utah Opera readies a grand welcome for “The Little Prince”

Wed Jan 16, 2019 at 9:50 am
By Edward Reichel

Jared Bybee and 11-year-old Nitai Fluchel star in Utah Opera’s production of “The Little Prince”

Utah Opera artistic director Christopher McBeth is continually on the lookout for new operas that local audiences will relate to — “and by relevance I mean operas that are family-friendly,” says McBeth.

That can be a challenge in a field teeming with adult subject matter and envelope-pushing new stagings, but when McBeth saw The Little Prince, he knew he had a winner: “It’s one of the best family operas I’ve seen.”

The Little Prince receives its Utah premiere on January 19 in the Capitol Theatre and will run for five performances, with an 11-year-old student from the Madeleine Choir School in the title role and his classmates playing an essential choral part in this ambitious retelling of a beloved story.

The opera, by Academy Award-winning film composer Rachel Portman and librettist Nicholas Wright, was commissioned and premiered by Houston Grand Opera in 2003. It closely follows the novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in which a pilot grounded by a desert sandstorm encounters a soulful child, the prince, who says he is traveling the universe in search of knowledge and wisdom.

“The opera is true to the original,” says conductor James Lowe. “St. Exupéry’s nephew was involved in the process of creating the opera, and he was adamant about keeping the order of events in the story. He was against making certain changes because he wanted the opera to be as close as possible to the book. And he was pleased how it turned out.”

But this production is Utah Opera’s own, with new sets and what Lowe calls a “reinvigorated” vision for the 15-year-old work.

The grown-up cast includes baritone Jared Bybee as the Pilot and mezzo-soprano and Utah Opera resident artist Melanie Ashkar as the Fox, companion and confidante to the young prince. In the title role is Nitai Fluchel, the Madeleine Choir School fifth-grader who says he was “amazed and surprised” as the youngest of five boys who auditioned to be the one chosen.

“I’m excited, because it’s an amazing opportunity,” he says.

Nitai Fluchel plays “The Little Prince” in the Utah Opera production of the classic children’s tale.

Nitai — “Tai” to friends and cast mates like Ashkar who call the youngster a delight to work with — regards the work he is taking on with enthusiasm and an appraising eye.

“It is so cool,” he raves. “Kids will love it because it shows how you can improve kids’ minds by learning about what’s around you.”

He doesn’t foresee adults squirming in their seats, bored silly and waiting for it to be over because the opera doesn’t speak to them. “You can see how things change as you grow up and become an adult,” says Nitai.

Many of his schoolmates will make up the children’s choir, in keeping with the Madeleine school’s long tradition of supplying vocal talent for Utah Opera and the Utah Symphony. “They prepare you very well,” says Nitai.

The opera will demand a lot from these young singers. “They’re onstage almost the entire time,” says stage director Tara Faircloth. Lowe, the conductor, says the Madeleine school has the best children’s choir he’s ever worked with.

Utah Opera was likewise fortunate to enlist Lowe, who has been closely connected with The Little Prince since he worked on the inaugural Houston production.

“There’s been a lot of tightening and there’ve been several cuts and changes made since the premiere,” says Lowe, who will be in the pit with members of the Utah Symphony.

Those alterations didn’t ruffle the opera’s composer. “Being a film composer, Rachel is very receptive to changes,” Lowe says. “[Yet] these were probably the fewest number of edits that have ever been requested of her for one of her scores.”

Lowe says Portman — a prolific scorer of films from The Joy Luck Club (1993) to her Oscar winner, Emma, (1996) to Because of Winn-Dixie (2005) — was an ideal choice.

“Her music suits the story so well,” he says. “One of her greatest strengths is creating mood. She knows instinctively how to set the tone. It’s so stunning and colorful.”

He said that the music is tonal, but complex:.  “It’s definitely not simple. Her harmonic language is used for effect, but it’s always pleasing.”

The revised production Lowe says he is looking forward to is in no small part the work of stage director Faircloth and set and costume designer Jacob A. Climer.

“I wanted something that captured the beauty, fantasy and imagination of the story,” says Climer. “But the design also needed to be approachable for everyone.”

What Climer ended up creating was a multi-faceted stage that plays “on different levels,” literal and allegorical. At the same time, Climer says, “Tara’s and my job is to take the deep and dark subject matter in the show and beautify it and simplify it to make the message clear and direct.”

The stage is a study, ostensibly St. Exupéry’s, which then opens on to a bleak Saharan landscape. Instead of sand, the stage floor is covered with sheaves of handwritten paper — an evocation of the painstaking work St. Exupéry did over countless drafts and rewrites to realize his vision.

“Our setting cleverly combines the story with the writing of the story,” says mezzo-soprano Ashkar.

Bybee, the baritone, describes a production that also explores how truth and memory interact.

“The story is essentially a journey back to St. Exupéry’s youth,” he says. “The Little Prince represents him as a boy. So is the story a metaphysical journey or a real journey? That, I think, is open to discussion.”

One the strongest takeaways for Bybee is the need to find beauty in the world in order to live: “It’s about what your heart sees and not what your eyes see.”

Faircloth says every audience member can find meaning in the story for themselves.

“It’s a philosophical book for all ages,” she says.

The opera is in English with English supertitles. The cast includes soprano Grace Kahl as The Rose; soprano Melissa Heath as The Water; tenor Joshua Lindsay as The Snake and Vain Man; tenor Addison Marlor as The Lamplighter and Drunkard; baritone Jesús Vicente Murillo as The Businessman; and Tyrell Wilde as The King.

The Little Prince runs January 19-27 at the Capitol Theatre. utahopera.org; 801-355-2787.

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