Monkey and Francine in the City of Tigers tells the story of a monkey prince and his brainy sister who outwit a hungry crocodile and escape from the opera’s eponymous city. It’s a children’s production that borrows from both Indian and Chinese mythology, and the music is a mashup of Bollywood, opera, and Ethiopian jazz.
That kind of diversity and cultural blending is on display this week at Miller Outdoor Theatre, as Houston Grand Opera’s outreach arm, HGOco, presents the Monkey and Francine world premiere, with music by rising composer Kamala Sankaram and libretto by David Johnston. The singers hail from the company’s acclaimed Opera to Go ensemble, and Monkey and Francine is a co-commission with American Lyric Theater
“It’s just a great mix of musical styles,” says Dennis Arrowsmith, HGOco’s touring programs manager. “As a company, we’re always asking ourselves, what does opera sound like now? What can it sound like? No musical style stays the same; it always evolves. Opera may be a slower moving beast than others at that, but the art form does change across time.”
Capturing those changes is important, says Arrowsmith, especially when dealing with opera outreach. HGOco has put a premium not only on bringing opera to where people live, but on sounding like those communities when it gets there. Monkey and Francine should provide audiences with both recognizable music styles and new things to explore.
Composer Kamala Sankaram ‘s work has been called “strikingly original,” and she's received commissions from Beth Morrison Projects, HERE Arts Center, Opera on Tap, and Anthony Braxton’s Tri-Centric Orchestra, among others. David Johnston is an award-winning playwright, librettist, and screenwriter. His plays have been performed and read at the New Group, Moving Arts, the Neighborhood Playhouse, HB Playwrights Foundation, and Ensemble Studio Theatre. This is their first work for HGOco.
“Their fresh approach and originality is what drew us to them for this piece,” says Arrosmith. “David brought these myth styles together and that’s reflected in Kamala’s composition style, and that diversity shows in our cast.”
Monkey and Francine features a Latina soprano, a Caucasian tenor, a Persian baritone, a Sri Lankan mezzo-soprano and a Japanese pianist. It doesn’t get much more diverse than that.
“We wanted kids to not only see themselves in the story, but also see themselves in the performers,” Arrowsmith says. “This is something they can all identify with. At its core, it’s about a brother and sister who fight, but who wind up learning how to work together to overcome the bad guys. That could be anything, but in this case, it’s a crocodile and a tiger who’ve stolen their gold and bananas.”
The show is billed for children, but adults should love it as well. When a partially staged version of the show was performed in New York earlier this year, the NPR program Seen and Heard said “the libretto was sophisticated and fresh, while the music was witty and eclectic. You tapped your toes and found yourself singing along.”
Arrowsmith hopes the show will de-mystify opera, and show that “it’s not scary or intimidating or impossible to understand."
Plus: "When it’s over, people can go to lunch or to one of the museums or even go see real monkeys across the street in the Houston Zoo.”
Monkey and Francine in the City of Tigers, May 2–4. Free. Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Dr. 713-228-6737. More info at houstongrandopera.org.