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R: What do you get when you mix two very different ingredients, Roald Dahl's classic children's story "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and opera? Answer: "The Golden Ticket," which premiered this week at Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

The show seemed, to its creators, like a natural way for opera companies to attract new audiences by bringing in families, but as Jim Dryden reports, its path to the stage was neither smooth nor sweet.

JIM DRYDEN: Roald Dahl thought of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" as his most musical story. But his widow, Felicity, says that didn't help it get to the stage.

FELICITY DAHL: I think there is a problem in the opera world. They associate the story with children. And I think there's great difficulty in getting new repertoire for children in opera.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE GOLDEN TICKET")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Unidentified People: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

DRYDEN: 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 started talking about creating an opera around "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," and Ash says he told Sturrock he'd like to do more than conduct this time.

PETER ASH: So he said, well, right, well, let's present the idea to Mrs. Dahl. And she said, well, write a scene of it. So I wrote a scene of it. People at the National Theatre, including Trevor Nunn, had a look at what we'd done, and they were excited by it. I did say to Trevor Nunn that it was an opera and not a musical, and he said never mind.

DRYDEN: But that little detail proved to be a big hurdle for composer Ash and librettist Donald Sturrock. It seemed the National Theatre was more interested in a musical, so they searched for an opera company. Eventually, they presented a concert performance of the opera, and Sturrock says it did not go well.

DONALD STURROCK: One of the reviews in the paper the next day said: I've read about great opera disasters, but I've never seen one. Now I have. And so this 2,000-seater hall that was absolutely packed was, by the end of the evening, largely empty, and there were lots of very cross people.

DRYDEN: It seemed the only happy people in the audience were representatives of a British arts agency. Based on the concert, they awarded the project a grant to make a CD-ROM of highlights from the opera. It was hosted by one of "The Golden Ticket's" biggest boosters, conductor Simon Rattle.

SIMON RATTLE: You're about to hear 20 minutes of extracts. I hope when you've listened to these extracts, first of all that you'll like it as much as I do, but that you'll want to know more about it. And I do hope that some of you will want to be a part of the piece's future.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE GOLDEN TICKET")

Unidentified Person: (As character) (Singing) (Unintelligible).

DRYDEN: Librettist Donald Sturrock believes most opera officials probably never even listened to the CD-ROM, but even if they had...

STURROCK: There's definitely a sense that something that appeals to kids is not what opera houses should be doing. And with that comes a certain intellectual snobbery, you might call it, that says that this is high art, it's Wagner, it's Mozart, it's - you know, we're here to do something at a very high level. And along with that, there's a little bit of the jewels and tiara business, that, you know, again, people have come to see something grand and edifying and fine and probably tragic. I think they're wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE GOLDEN TICKET")

People: (As character) (Singing) (Unintelligible).

DRYDEN: The CD 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 had some suggestions and edits and eventually decided to direct "The Golden Ticket" himself.

JAMES ROBINSON: Everything that Donald and Peter have done thus far has really set the piece up to be something that would appeal to families, to be an operatic version of "The Nutcracker." I would really hope so.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE GOLDEN TICKET")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

: (As character) (Singing) He must be joking. I hope he's joking. Don't you?

People: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

DRYDEN: Robinson says the proof will be in the chocolate, so to speak, and Felicity Dahl says if sweets improve with age, "The Golden Ticket" is ready to be tasted.

DAHL: It naturally does take a long time, but I have to say this took, to me, far too long. And I really take my hat off to St. Louis for biting the bullet, and I don't think they'll live to regret it.

DRYDEN: After St. Louis, "The Golden Ticket" travels to Ireland for performances at the Wexford Festival this fall.

For NPR News, I'm Jim Dryden in St. Louis.

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