Daniel Okulitch plays Willy Wonka at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
Daniel Okulitch plays Willy Wonka at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Ken Howard
In this scene, from Act 2, Willy Wonka (sung by Daniel Okulitch) gives his chocolate factory to the little boy Charlie (sung by Michael Kepler Meo) as they take off in Wonka's flying elevator. Timothy Redmond conducts members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra from the world-premiere performance June 13 at the Loretto-Hilton Center in St. Louis.
The opera called The Golden Ticket seemed like just that — a natural way for opera companies to attract new audiences by bringing families into the opera house. But the world premiere under way now at Opera Theatre of St. Louis did not have a sweet ride from conception to opening night.
The Golden Ticket is based on Roald Dahl's classic children's story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Dahl thought of the book as his most musical story. But his widow, Felicity, says that didn't help it get to the stage.
"I think there is a problem in the opera world — that they associate the story with children," she says. "There's great difficulty in getting new repertoire for children in opera."
The saga began more than a decade ago, when Donald Sturrock was the stage director and Peter Ash the conductor for the Los Angeles Opera's production of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, a children's opera based on another Dahl story. They talked about creating an opera around Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Ash told Sturrock he wanted to do more than conduct this time.
They presented the idea to Felicity Dahl, and she asked them to write a scene. They eventually attracted the attention of people at the National Theatre, including Trevor Nunn.
"They had a look at what we'd done, and they were excited by it," Ash says. "I did say to Trevor Nunn that it was an opera and not a musical, but he said never mind."
But that little detail proved to be a big hurdle. It seemed that the National Theatre was more interested in a musical, so Sturrock and Ash searched for an opera company. Eventually, they presented a concert performance of the opera, but it did not go well.
"One of the reviews in the paper the next day said, 'I've read about great opera disasters, but had never seen one. Now I have,' " Sturrock says. "This 2,000-seater hall that was absolutely packed was, by the end of the evening, largely empty."
It seemed the only happy people in the audience were representatives of a British arts agency. Based on what they heard at the concert, they awarded the project a grant to make a recording of highlights from the opera. It was hosted by one of The Golden Ticket's biggest boosters, Berlin Philharmonic conductor Simon Rattle.
But no opera company picked up the project. Sturrock says he believes that most opera officials never listened to the CD.
"There's definitely a sense that something that appeals to kids is not what opera houses should be doing," Sturrock says. "And with that comes a certain intellectual snobbery, the idea that people have come to see something grand and edifying and fine and probably tragic — I think they're wrong."
Finding The Right Home
The CD eventually wound up in the computer of James Robinson, the artistic director at Opera Theatre of St. Louis. After listening to it, he attended a workshop production at American Lyric Theatre in New York. He offered some suggestions and edits, and eventually decided to direct The Golden Ticket. He says he thinks it has the potential to become an operatic version of The Nutcracker. But Robinson says the proof will be in the chocolate, so to speak.
Felicity Dahl says that if sweets improve with age, then The Golden Ticket is ready to be tasted.
"It naturally takes a long time, but this took far too long," she says. "I take my hat off to St. Louis for biting the bullet, and I don't think they'll live to regret it."
After St. Louis, The Golden Ticket travels to Ireland for performances at the Wexford Festival this fall.