Opera companies don't customarily cater to kids.
Oh sure, you'll find an occasional holiday production of Engelbert Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" or Gian Carlo Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors." And Mozart's "The Magic Flute" can work well for all ages. But most of the time, operas are given over to death and desire, with vengeance, sex, love and murder the dominant driving forces.
Into that void of kid-friendly opera steps "Edward Tulane," which premiered Saturday in St. Paul, courtesy of Minnesota Opera. Composer Paola Prestini and librettist Mark Campbell have adapted Minneapolis author Kate DiCamillo's book for young readers — "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" — into a tender tale about keeping a soft heart in a hard world. Staying admirably true to the book's sweet spirit, it's a production that can engage a multi-generational audience with its score, story and eye-popping visuals.
Prestini's arias and orchestrations are a paradoxical combination of simplicity and complexity. Vocal lines move in unpredictable directions — sometimes barely moving at all — and the composer eschews comforting resolutions in favor of chords that keep you hanging. While audiences are unlikely to leave the Ordway Center with any particular melodies stuck in their heads, the emotions evoked will likely stay with them.
It's the story of a toy rabbit given to a young girl as a gift that soon leaves the lap of luxury when it's thrown off an ocean liner. After being rescued by a fisherman, "Edward" takes on a series of owners and identities, most enduring difficult lives but sharing love with their inanimate companion.
And he's not quite inanimate in this production, for this gangly rabbit of porcelain and fake fur is shadowed by an anthropomorphized incarnation portrayed by Jack Swanson, a Stillwater-bred tenor on the rise who makes his Minnesota Opera debut. Swanson has a rich voice that smoothly navigates Prestini's multi-octave demands and creates an endearing character despite his occasional bouts with Eeyore-esque fatalism.
Among those he encounters along the way, standouts include Lisa Marie Rogali, whose vivacious coloratura soprano voice and ready-for-anything character actor instincts are used to great effect as a princess in a nightmarish bedtime story and a joyously scavenging dog. Nicholas Davis and Victoria Vargas bring welcome warmth to the couple who initially rescue Edward. And Jasmine Habersham and Brian Vu join Swanson for a beautiful first act finale full of hope.
At each stop on Edward's journey, we're treated to the awe-inspiring costuming of Victoria "Vita" Tzykun and some spectacular sets from designer Walt Spangler. Tzykun does amazing work throughout, starting with the elaborate creations in the early bedtime story scene before introducing us to some electrified undersea creatures. Her attention to detail peaks in a doll shop full of distinctive characters.
And the scene at the ocean's bottom is a triumph for Spangler, as are the incomplete hunks of houses that Edward temporarily calls home.
Director Eric Simonson makes this an unfailingly engaging odyssey, the tale smoothly spun and the crowd scenes impressively sculpted. Chorus director Celeste Marie Johnson has helped shape some well-blended harmonies. And conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya and the Minnesota Opera Orchestra help make a convincing case that this opera may have a great journey in front of it, one that holds rewards for audience members of any age.
Minnesota Opera's 'Edward Tulane'
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Ordway Music Theater, 345 Washington St., St. Paul
Tickets: $25-$237, available at 612-333-6669 or mnopera.org
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at email@example.com.