Pallid New Opera Based on The Secret Garden

United StatesUnited States Nolan Gasser and Carey Harrison, The Secret Garden: Soloists and members of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, Calif. 2.3.2013 (HS)

Mary Lennox: Sarah Shafer
The Porter/Dickon Sowersby: Scott Joiner
Rajah/Colin: Michael Kepler Meo
Ayah/Mrs. Medlock: Erin Johnson
Mrs. Lennox/Susan Sowersby: Marina Harris
An Officer’s Wife/Martha Sowersby: Laura Krumm
An Indian Gardener/Ben Weatherstaff: Ao Li’

Conductor: Sara Jobin
Director: José Maria Condemi
Visual Designer: Naomie Kremer
Lighting Designer: Christopher Maravich


Scott Joiner (Dickon Sowerby), Michael Kepler Meo (Colin) and  Sarah Shafer (Mary Lennox). Photo by Peter DaSilva/San Francisco Opera/Cal Performances.
Scott Joiner (Dickon Sowerby), Michael Kepler Meo (Colin) and Sarah Shafer (Mary Lennox). Photo by Peter DaSilva/San Francisco Opera/Cal Performances.

For all its charms, opera offers relatively slim pickings for family entertainment. Most opera, after all, is ultimately about sex and death. When I was a lad in Los Angeles, my school would pile us into a yellow bus to the massive Shrine Auditorium to see The Bartered Bride, La Cenerentola, or The Magic Flute. Gianni Schicchi was the most adult story we encountered. There’s always Hansel and Gretel, which like most fairy tales explores psychologically dark themes. The powers that be certainly did not want to show us Tosca and explain to us tykes what Scarpia wanted to do the title character.

An operatic version of The Secret Garden, one of the most cherished children’s books of the 20th century, would seem to be an ideal addition to the list. We all know the story—not only from the book but from various screen treatments and a 1991 Broadway musical—its themes chaste and uplifting. Music ought to flesh out the emotions. However, it’s hard to imagine that the work currently getting its world premiere will be as beloved as the book or even the musical.

Co-commissioned by San Francisco Opera, Cal Performances and Houston Grand Opera, the inaugural staging is in the midst of a run of five performances at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, California. The music is by Nolan Gasser, a composer and professor at Stanford University and probably best known as the architect of the Music Genome Project, the technology behind Pandora Radio. Playwright and author Carey Harrison, the son of actor Rex Harrison, did the libretto.

A cast of charming and vocally accomplished young singers, many of them Adler Fellows in San Francisco Opera’s Merola training program, gamely infused the characters with color and personality that weren’t always there in the music. Video artist Naomie Kremer designed colorful and animated projections that brought motion and life to the simple scrims and translucent screens that defined the staging.

What is it that seems to happen to otherwise excellent composers when they turn to opera? Gasser has written wonderfully colorful and emotionally charged music that has been played in Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center and La Salle Pleyel. His style is tonal and ingratiating, writing paragraphs and whole chapters in his other music, but this score seems to shorten those to brief utterances that seldom complete a musical thought.

(I couldn’t help flashing back to Thomas Newman, who jettisoned the musical language of his brilliant film scores when he wrote a miserable failure of an opera on the horror film story The Fly for Los Angeles Opera a few years back, confining his musical palette to mild but grinding dissonances and wandering vocal lines.)

Again and again, Gasser writes a phrase that begs for a continuation, but just stops. Sarah Jobin (who also led Rachel Portman’s more charming and accomplished The Little Prince here recently), conducted the 10-piece orchestra with clarity, but there was little she could do with the music’s limited tempo range. Throughout the two-hour running time, the pace varied little, while almost all vocal lines proceeded at the same stately gait. That was numbing, but there are some good ideas in the score. They just aren’t developed into anything memorable.

The short Prelude takes place in India around the turn of the 20th century. Musical gestures reminiscent of ragas and percussion evoking tablas accompany scenes of the 10-year-old Mary Lennox as a spoiled brat. Following this, under a limp-wristed depiction of the cholera epidemic that kills her family, an attempt at dissonant music sounds ludicrous.

Act One introduces Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire, where Mary is sent to live with a widowed uncle, Mr. Craven. Ten years after his wife’s death, his melancholy infuses the house, reflected in music that seems to resist any semblance of emotion. His son, the crippled Colin, confined to his room, cries out in the night but none of the staff will tell Mary anything about him. Mary, meanwhile, finally discovers some happiness when she meets grounds worker Dickon, the son of a servant. A magical robin leads her to the key to a secret garden, planted by the uncle’s late wife but now locked away.

Ao Li (Ben Weatherstaff), Erin Johnson (Mrs. Medlock), Philippe Sly (Archibald Craven), Michael Kepler Meo (Colin), Scott Joiner (Dickon Sowerby), Marina Harris (Susan Sowerby), Laura Krumm (Martha Sowerby) and Sarah Shafer (Mary Lennox). Photo by Betsy Kershner/San Francisco Opera/Cal Performances.
Ao Li (Ben Weatherstaff), Erin Johnson (Mrs. Medlock), Philippe Sly (Archibald Craven), Michael Kepler Meo (Colin), Scott Joiner (Dickon Sowerby), Marina Harris (Susan Sowerby), Laura Krumm (Martha Sowerby) and Sarah Shafer (Mary Lennox). Photo by Betsy Kershner/San Francisco Opera/Cal Performances.

Act Two introduces Colin, whom Mary discovers is not crippled at all, just weakened from confinement. Excited by the prospect of rejuvenating the secret garden, Mary conspires with Dickon to replant it, and they bring out Colin to get some fresh air. The young fellow is revitalized along with the garden. The family and staff discover the children and the garden and joy is had by all.

In contrast to the halting efforts of Act One, Gasser’s music for Act Two shows increasing color and coherence. As the projections similarly move from drab colors to more vivid renderings, the music expands into duets and trios and finally a full ensemble. But still, Gasser seems unwilling to use his full compositional palette. At intermission I was left wondering if the lackluster music would ever get going.

But in Act Two we get a nicely crafted letter duet, with Mrs. Sowersby (Mary’s governess) writing to the traveling Mr. Craven to urge him to come home to see his revitalized son. It’s also nicely staged, dominated with a video projection showing a fountain pen writing the words. Here Gasser’s melodies show some urgency and emotional depth, deftly shifting from writer to reader and back. The music picks up more color and momentum as it moves toward a finale, achieving a climax not so much joyous as sort of “joy-ish.”

As one of the featured children, youthful-looking soprano Sarah Shafer (who sang Barbarina in Le Nozze di Figaro last summer at Glyndebourne) lent a lyric, creamy tone and expressive stage presence to Mary. Tenor Scott Joiner delivered Dickon’s music with freshness and a vibrant, piquant sound. Fourteen-year-old Michael Kepler, no longer a child soprano, showed natural stage presence and a sweet sound as Colin.

Among the adults, bass-baritone Philippe Sly brought the necessary gravitas to Mr. Craven. Mezzo-soprano Erin Johnson used sharply focused sound and command for Mrs. Medlock, mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm gave a lovely lyric cast to Martha (a servant who takes Mary under her wing), and baritone Ao Li brought warmth and vitality to the gardener, Ben Weatherstaff.

With more fully fleshed-out material, their efforts could have been much more rewarding.

Harvey Steiman