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Small voices, large task

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

When children tackle opera in the cavernous Alex Theatre, good and bad can spring from it.

July 14, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

All children's operas may not be created equal, but kids are kids. Put lots of them on stage, give them lots to sing and do, and a whole lot of good will come of it.

Commissioned by the Los Angeles Children's Chorus, Peter Ash's "Keepers of the Night," which had its premiere Thursday at the Alex Theatre, obviously had children aplenty on stage to make an audience of family and friends proud.

As a half-million-dollar project, it also provided young singers with a chance to get a genuine feel for the lyric stage. They all now have molecules of greasepaint in their bloodstream. They've opened their voices before the footlights. Having lived opera, they are now poised to be the art form's future fans and patrons.

That is not to imply "Keepers" is a keeper or likely to have quite the same appeal to a general opera-goer as to adoring parents. Ash and librettist Donald Sturrock are veterans of Los Angeles Opera's "Fantastic Mr. Fox," an opera created for children by Tobias Picker. Sturrock was the "Fox" librettist, and Ash conducted the 1998 premiere at the Music Center.

"Fox" was not a success, in part because of an overly fussy libretto. It wasn't excitingly conducted, either. Perhaps "Keepers" was intended to provide the team new opportunities. Writing lyrics that children (along with some adults) could sing, Sturrock had to keep it simpler, if not exactly simple. Grant Gershon, the music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and a gifted opera conductor, was this time in the pit. Corey Madden, former associate artistic director of Center Theatre Group, directed.

Nature, for Sturrock, is for fantasy. In "Keepers," four children spend the night in their backyard, and their midsummer night's dream is a song contest by the birds. There is a storm, rebellion and an awakening in which all is well. Somehow lessons are to be learned, via bird psychology, about democracy.

Ash, an American based in London, brings a British sound to his score. Benjamin Britten's "Midsummer Night's Dream" and Michael Tippett's "Midsummer Marriage" may be inspirations. A chamber orchestra of 14 plays harmonically spiky versions of Baroque dances. The vocal writing is a little more anonymous sounding.

One surprising aspect of the score is how little Ash takes advantage of the children's chorus. When he does, this becomes a very happy opera. The big chorus, a hymn to a tree, is the evening's highlight, stuffy as Sturrock's words sometimes get ("To its wise leaves we homage bring,/To its good roots we bend our knee,/To its strong bough our praise sing!").

I wonder what a children's chorus opera might have been like, one that played to the ensemble's strengths rather than this one with its many small roles and clumsy staging. A subplot involved the moon, Selene (Lynette Tapia), being slighted by a persnickety owl, Ozalid (Malcolm MacKenzie). Endymion (Lauren Libaw) was quite a funny mocking bird. So too was the spider (Suzanna Guzman), although Ash does not have a flair for flamboyant music.

An opera for children to sing is also an opera for children to attend. The Alex, I'm afraid, failed those latter kids. As a big (1,300 seats), acoustically dead former movie palace, it became the evening's nasty villain, gluttonously swallowing small voices. I'll bet the singers onstage had as much trouble hearing each other and the ensemble in the pit (which sounded as though it were in a different, distant room) as we did in the house.

In the end, "Keepers" is for the kids, giving these brave, admirable, hard-working kids the pleasure of rising to the phenomenal challenge of putting on opera. I hope it also inspires them to try it again themselves.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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`Keepers of the Night'

Where: Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale

Ends: 7:30 tonight, 2 p.m. Sunday

Price: $20 to $60

Contact: (818) 243-2539 or www.alextheatre.org

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