SALT LAKE CITY — One can only imagine what was going through the heart and mind of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in the early 1940s as World War II raged in his beloved France and as he penned The Little Prince. Having escaped with his wife to New York when France fell to the Germans in 1940, Saint-Exupéry published The Little Prince in 1943, and it has become his best-known work. The story is a tender tale of loneliness, friendship, love, and loss: emotions and experiences with which the author, no doubt, was all too familiar. An earlier memoir by the author had recounted his aviation experiences when he crashed in the Sahara Desert and experienced intense dehydration and hallucinations. He is thought to have drawn on those same experiences to form the basis of the story for The Little Prince.
Flash forward some 60 years to England and to film composer Rachel Portman, one of the most gifted, prolific, and successful film composers of her generation—and one of a mere handful of women film composers. I have been in love with her music since I heard her score for Chocolat. She has also written the scores for Emma (for which she won an Academy Award), Benny & Joon, The Cider House Rules, The Lake House, and most recently A Dog’s Purpose, among about 50 others. As a mother of three daughters, Portman wanted to give her daughters something that money couldn’t buy: really good live theater for children. There simply was not enough of it around, so she hit upon the idea of writing an opera based on Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.
I’m always leery of modern opera. It seems that there’s some unwritten contest among modern composers to see who can write the most arbitrary and discordant music. Portman is not one of those composers. The score to The Little Prince is lush, lyrical, evocative, and “listenable” which makes the current production and Utah Opera Premiere of The Little Prince intensely enjoyable, poignant, and therefore, “watchable.”
The narrator is The Pilot, wonderfully played and sung by Jared Bybee. This fine actor’s strong and sure baritone commands the stage as The Pilot pulls the audience through the story of his encounter with Little Prince. The Pilot begins the opera as an adult who starts the show with a story from his childhood: he draws a picture of a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant. He shows it to the adults in his life, who think the picture is the drawing of a hat; the scene makes clear the inability of grown-ups to perceive especially important things. He is told by his adults to concentrate on history and grammar, and he grows up to be a pilot. One day, his plane crashes in the desert, where he comes across a most unusual boy who asks him to draw a sheep. This is Little Prince who lives all alone on an asteroid with The Rose, a self-absorbed flower beautifully sung by Grace Kahl. Little Prince loves and cares deeply for The Rose.
Over the next eight days as The Pilot tries to fix his plane, Little Prince recounts the story of his life and his adventures. The story is peppered by imaginative and outlandish characters that comment profoundly on human beings:
- The King, with no subjects (played with joy and silliness by Tyrell Wilde) and who only issues orders that can be followed, such as commanding the sun to set at sunset—a king of the obvious—
- Vain Man (played with just the right amount of vanity and bravado by Joshua Lindsay) who only wants praise and admiration on his uninhabited planet—a lone world where most narcissists live—
- Drunkard (played with jocular inebriation by Addison Marlor) who drinks to forget the shame of drinking—the well-known destructive cycle—
- Businessman (played efficiently and wonderfully by Jesús Vicente Murillo) who is blind to the beauty of the stars and instead endlessly counts and catalogs them to “own” them—a timely early-millennial message—
- and Lamplighter (played with pensive sadness also by Marlor) who lives on a planet so small a full day lasts a minute and who wastes his life blindly following orders to extinguish and relight the lamppost every 30 seconds—the epitome of the blind masses who follow without thought.
Then Little Prince falls to Earth and meets the most important characters: The Pilot, The Snake, The Fox, and The Water.
In Act I, as Little Prince pesters The Pilot, who is trying to fix his plane, with questions, The Pilot loses his temper and tells the boy that he is, “doing something serious!” Little Prince then sings a reflective and profound aria about what is really serious in life: “if a flower is loved by someone, if that someone is a boy … If his flower has been taken, stars will flee the sky … then he will see the blackness and he’ll cry … and so will I. That’s serious. That’s serious.” Nitai Fluchel plays a charming and a little timid Little Prince which works for the inquisitive and pensive prince character. His singing of this reflective aria brings a tear to the eye, invoking an understanding of how it feels to long for a loved one who might be lost. The libretto, the text of the opera, skillfully written by Nicholas Wright, is clever and expressive, moving and plaintive. It’s also a treat to hear an opera’s lyrics rhyme.
Though seemingly styled as a children’s book, The Little Prince makes observations about life and human nature. The most heartfelt is when Little Prince, now on earth, meets The Fox, expertly sung and played by Melanie Ashkar. The story’s essence is contained in the morals The Fox sings: “Eyes can’t see what is essential, eyes deceive. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes,” and, “while you’re searching, trust your heart, you’re sure to find your prize, the heart sees far more clearly than the eyes, one sees only with the heart.” The Fox teaches Little Prince that people are forever responsible for what they have “tamed,” and “the only things you learn are the things you tame.”
Finally, after eight days, The Pilot is out of water, and takes Little Prince in search of life-saving water. They find a well, toss down a bucket and pull up The Water, beautifully sung by Melissa Heath: life-giving and cooling.
Now his journey is over, it’s time for Little Prince to return to his planet. The only one who can return him to his home is The Snake, unctuously played by Lindsay. The Snake is an interesting choice of animals to choose to return Little Prince home, given the history of snakes in world and religious culture. The Snake can send Little Prince back to whence he came by biting the boy. Little Prince assures The Pilot that the bite will not kill him. “All that you see is just a shell. There’s nothing sad about a shell. Anything essential is invisible to the eye.” In essence, the essential, the soul, lives on after the shell, the body, departs the world. With that, Little Prince goes to The Snake, who sends him back to his world.
This is one of the most enjoyable productions I have seen at Utah Opera. Directed by Tara Faircloth, her work with the singers is inspired and her direction is engaging. Her interpretation of the opera is well-thought out and expertly executed. The sets are imaginative and visually intriguing, made up of more than 10,000 square feet of paper, and the costumes, both designed by Jacob A. Climer, are colorful, fun, and inventive. The lighting, by Mark Stanley, paints the stage with the right amount of chiaroscuro: color, sunlight, heat and starlight. I have to make special mention of the wigs, designed by Kate Casalino: they were fresh, vivid, gaudy and delightful. The cast is solid, without a weak link in the group. I must also mention the wonderful, rich, and endearing children of The Madeleine Choir School, who enrich this production with youthful energy and exuberance.
I never read The Little Prince, nor was it ever read to me, but after seeing it I understand why so many adults read it to their children: it’s not so much for a child’s heart, but for the adult’s heart. It’s a reminder of what is important in life: not the “serious things” or those things commonly identified as serious, but the “roses” to be loved and tended, the friends “tamed,” and who “are tamed,” and the “essential” soul invisible to the eye. The Little Prince is a story for all of us who have love, lost, or hoped.