For the second year, the Opera Company of North Carolina has presented the children's opera Starbird by composer Henry Mollicone and librettist Kate Pogue as part of its community outreach program. Designed to promote opera awareness and appreciation for the next generation of ticket buyers, Starbird raises some important issues on the optimal way to reach kids who otherwise would have little or no exposure to this complex art form.
In a world where children consume a regular diet of special effects in entertainment and play, the first job of purveyors of high art is to get their attention. The next job is to hold it for the duration of a performance; and the final job-by far the most difficult-is to send them away wanting more. In the special effects category, Starbird is certainly a winner. An updated version of The Brementown Musicians, Starbird gives the tale a futuristic twist. A dog, a cat and a donkey are sitting in Central Park, lamenting their obsolescence as mail carrier, rat catcher and political party mascot respectively, when a spaceship lands in their midst. Out of the ship emerges Starbird, imprisoned in a metal cage by a race of robots from another world. Her captors roam the universe capturing and transforming other life forms into robots themselves. Nevertheless, the three animals, with nothing to lose, board the spaceship and manage to outwit the robots by pulling their plugs just as they are about to be transformed. They release the Starbird, who, in a display of gloriously glittering plumage and matching coloratura, helps them return to earth.
The stage effects and costumes are stunning, including the illuminated spaceship, blinking robots and, of course, Starbird herself. The story will do. But the music is a problem: not one tune, and very little beat. The musical style is a kind of quasi-tonal recitative-a chip off the old Wagnerian block-which requires that the singers have flawless diction in order to communicate the story. We heard several children commenting during the performance that they couldn't understand the singers-their first lesson in real-world opera. Nevertheless, the kids seemed to enjoy their hour's worth of entertainment but they held off on the "bravissimos," the sign of enthusiasm they had been taught before the performance by Darby the Dog (a.k.a. OCNC's managing director Robert Galbraith). The real proof of success could be seen in the forest of hands during the Q&A after the performance.
But will they come back to opera on their own? How much musical "dumbing down" or "aging down" do they need to hook them? And what constitutes "dumbing down" anyway? These are complex issues with no "right answers," but they need careful consideration by anyone trying to compose for this special audience. In our opinion, Starbird lacked sufficient distinction between recitative and aria. The arias begged for melody-a couple of tunes you could remember and sing after the performance. It would have been interesting to see how many kids would get their parents to buy a CD of the "soundtrack."
As for the performers, the judgement has to be made on diction as much as on voice itself. Starbird's gold star goes to the Cat, mezzo-soprano Kitt Reuter Foss. Her diction was impeccable, her catty acting humorous and her voice clean and clear. Tenor Timothy Sparks as the Dog and bass-baritone Mark Doss as the Donkey share the silver star. Doss especially has a phenomenal range and a bright future as a serious basso.
Unfortunately, Metropolitan Opera soprano Elizabeth Carter as Starbird, while lovely in voice, suffered from unintelligible diction and deserves only the bronze star. This just will not do for a children's opera production. If the kids can't understand what a character is singing about, no matter how beautiful the voice or marvelous the costume, they'll be lost. With all due respect, however, the tessitura of her part worked against good diction, and that's Mollicone's problem. Carter was, however, clear and informative during the Q&A session.
All in all, Starbird is a reasonably decent product to put before kids but we believe inadequate to the task of hooking them.