The youngest chorus singer in Houston Grand Opera’s The Little Prince is barely learning multiplication and division. The oldest? An eleventh-grader. But don’t think that means this is a children’s opera—it’s a magical story for all ages. Based on the 1943 French novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the opera premiered in 2003 at HGO with music by Rachel Portman and libretto by Nicholas Wright and makes a brilliant return to Wortham Center on Friday, December 4th.
The mysterious and dreamy story follows a pilot who crashes his plane in the Sahara, leaving him destitute. In the middle of the desert he encounters a young boy who is on a journey from another universe, searching for answers even our greatest philosophers have yet to find.
“Yes there are children in it, yes it can be appealing to kids and family, but it’s not Disney on Ice or anything,” Karen Reeves, HGO’s children’s chorus director, says. “The story itself is much more, talking about life in big pictures, and it’s not simplistic.
Reeves has just finished directing the children’s chorus for Tosca, HGO’s season-opener. The Little Prince is one of only a handful of operas in which the children’s chorus is the sole chorus in the production. The choir for this opera is made up of an entirely different cast than Tosca, and for most of them, it will be their first show with HGO.
“In The Little Prince, the children sing in unison, in two parts, and in three parts,” Reeves says. It’s a bigger job but they’re up for it, thanks to lots of family support.
Mezzo-soprano Sofia Selowsky, singing the part of the fox, says that working with children brings levity to a show that’s not usually there. The fox appears close to the end of the opera and teaches the little prince a simple bit of wisdom.
“Caring about something else is how you imbue it with meaning. It’s a really special moment,” Selowsky says. “Working with someone who is eleven or twelve helps with the realism of the piece—they’re so sweet and innocent.”
And the production, by Francesca Zambello, enhances the musical magic in the air. HGO’s head of costumes, Norma Cortez, who was a stitcher in the costume department for the world premiere in 2003, is thrilled to see the costumes that she sewed are still standing.
“There are a lot of bright colors, but earth colors in this world too,” Cortez says. “The flowers are really popping out, really red and hot pink, and the there’s the water—blue, silver.”
Cortez’s cartoonish and Surrealist designs pay homage to the original illustrations. The hunters, for example, are in a lighter version of a fat suit made out of hoopings, like crinolines, that allow the singers to move around but look much bigger in scale.
“It’s a whole different world,” Cortez says. “When you have a period you base it on history, but with this we had to make it out of our imagination.”
Dec 4–20. $48–101. Wortham Center, 550 Prairie St. 713-228-6737. houstongrandopera.org