Minnesota Opera is on a roll. Just a few weeks ago, it was announced that this year’s Pulitzer for music was awarded to Kevin Puts for “Silent Night,” a Minnesota Opera-commissioned work that premiered before sold-out audiences in St. Paul this past November. And now, to close out its critically acclaimed 2011-2012 season, the Knight Arts grantee company launched another remarkable new work, a chamber opera for youth based on “The Giver,” Lois Lowry’s much beloved children’s book about the horrific implications of engineering a life free from pain or fear or difference.
The new one-act opera, with music and libretto by composer Susan Kander, is a co-commission of Minnesota Opera and Lyric Opera of Kansas City.
“The Giver” had its world premiere in Kansas City this January and its regional debut at the Minnesota Opera Center in Minneapolis just this weekend. The show represents months of preparation by the young musicians selected for the production’s cast. It’s also the first commission made through Project Opera, one of a series of educational programs for young people — from opera summer camps to music appreciation resources — offered by Minnesota Opera.
Kander’s adaptation ably tackles the philosophical complexities of Lowry’s Newbery Award-winning dystopian story set in the not-too-distant future. In a particularly clever stroke, Kander briskly handles the novel’s expository details and narrative movement by means of a Greek-style chorus; her instrumental scoring is atmospheric and unobtrusive, and the production’s chamber orchestra performed them sensitively. But the vocals take priority. The solos are handled deftly by all the principals (Tori Adams, in her role as the protagonist, merits a mention for her ethereal vocals and poise beyond her years), but this isn’t really an opera driven by grand arias or scenery-chewing relationship melodrama — the ensemble is primary, as fits a tale centered on “the Community.” This adaptation is a sophisticated and subtle work, in terms of both music and story. Like Lowry’s novel, it never panders.
On her website, Kander writes: “My theory [is] that if real kids get to be in real operas, with real roles for them as meaningful characters and chorus, telling real stories with real grownup opera singers singing real roles for grownups, it might de-mystify all that strange, unreal formality that the uninitiated can find so impenetrable in the opera tradition. I thought that maybe, when they were subsequently taken to see ‘The Magic Flute’ or ‘La Bohème,’ it wouldn’t be strange and impenetrable any more.”
“The Giver,” a co-commission of Minnesota Opera and the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, made its regional premiere this weekend, in six sold-out shows April 27 to 29 at the Minnesota Opera Center in Minneapolis. For more information about Minnesota Opera’s youth programs, performance and educational resources, visit http://www.mnopera.org/forkids. For audition details and information about the company’s Summer Opera Camp for youth grades 9 – 12: http://www.mnopera.org/SummerCamp.