Children have been cast in operas at least as far back as Mozart's "Magic Flute." But with a few exceptions -- including operas by Britten and Hans Krasa's "Brundibar" -- they sing alongside adults.
What about an opera that casts a whole children's chorus in the main role?
That's the idea three children's choir directors presented at the first national American Choral Directors Assn. convention this month in Los Angeles.
Emily Ellsworth, artistic director of the suburban Chicago Glen Ellyn Children's Chorus; Joan Gregoryk, head of the Children's Chorus of Washington (D.C.); and Roberta Q. Jackson, head of the Portland (Ore.) Symphonic Girlchoir, talked about how they teamed up to commission what they consider a new kind of work: a choral opera for children.
"This piece was created out of response to traditional opera for the young, which has some frustrations to it," Ellsworth said at one presentation. "Traditional opera is generally done by professional singers, or it's the kind of opera I like to call 'Mr. Rogers Creates Opera,' where the emphasis is on the process, not a finished product. But none of those scores are meant to be enduring or challenging enough to be a real work of art.
"What I was looking for was a piece that would engage my singers from beginning to end as the leading role of the opera, not as a side chorus, not as 'Oh, there's a chorus too.' "
The team that took that ball and ran with it consisted of Imant Raminsh, a Canadian composer known for his choral music, and James Tucker, head of the Northern Illinois University Opera Workshop program and author of four previous opera librettos. The pair wrote the 50-minute "The Nightingale," which will premiere in Washington on May 14, then move to Chicago a week later and to Portland, in June.
Each choral group will mount its own version, fully staged with orchestra plus a ballet dancer to enact the title role, which is to be sung by the chorus. The average cost will be about $65,000.
The opera is based on Hans Christian Andersen's familiar fairy tale. A Chinese emperor fancies a mechanical nightingale over a real one. Years later, when the emperor is dying, the mechanical bird breaks down. The real nightingale returns to charm Death by its song and restore the monarch to life.
"This is an incredible parable for our time," Raminsh said from his home in Coldstream, British Columbia. "Maybe it's melodramatic, but I feel we have taken an interest in virtual life almost to the exclusion of the natural world. Being an incurable Luddite, I find it is so gratifying that the artificial one winds down at the critical moment and the emperor's life is restored by the real nightingale."
The opera divides the chorus into three parts. A small group sings the role of the nightingale. A larger group plays courtiers, frogs and cows. The rest of the singers -- as many as 50 -- serve as the storyteller and a kind of Greek chorus. Two roles are sung by adults: the emperor and Death.
Andersen's story has surfaced in other opera versions, most famously Stravinsky's "The Nightingale."
"I researched that piece because I didn't want to write something covering ground already covered by another composer, especially a strong one like Stravinsky," Tucker said from his Illinois office. "But the Stravinsky opera is really a series of scenes. It doesn't tell the whole story in a linear, complete fashion. I felt that we could do as good or better with just telling the story."
And in telling it, Tucker said, he didn't write down to children. "I just intended to make it good theater, good storytelling, with a clear narrative, dramatic structure and clear dramatic arc."
Choral directors in L.A. who saw video excerpts of the work in rehearsal or in a concert presentation sounded positive about the results. Doreen Rao, director of choral programs at the University of Toronto, saw it as part of a broader picture.
"Bringing opera into organizations of children is an essential part of the cultural development of this country," she said. "The opportunity for children to be engaged in the creation and the birthing of an opera by a living composer in North America would suggest that our culture in general is improving and deepening."