Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Atlanta Opera commissions children's opera based on the tales of Br'er Rabbit

Posted By on Wed, Oct 26, 2011 at 12:22 PM

The Atlanta Operas newly-commissioned opera Rabbit Tales will have its world premiere at the Wrens Nest on October 29.
  • The Atlanta Opera's newly-commissioned opera "Rabbit Tales" will have its world premiere at the Wren's Nest on October 29.
The Atlanta Opera has commissioned its first opera, a one-hour work for children that will tour Atlanta schools starting this fall. Rabbit Tales is based on the Joel Chandler Harris collections of the stories of Br'er Rabbit and will have its world premiere with a free performance at Harris' historic home, the Wren's Nest in West Atlanta, on the afternoon of Saturday, October 29.

The work is the brainchild of Atlanta Opera's Director of Education Emmalee Iden who wanted to have an original work the company could use to bring opera to area school children. The task of writing the libretto fell to Atlanta playwright Madeleine St. Romain, who says she used the opportunity to explore some of the lesser known Br'er Rabbit tales and to incorporate a number of rabbit fables from around the world. “The Rabbit trickster is a common African story motif and folk hero,” she says. “That's where the Br'er Rabbit stories come from.” The new work—which features several stories within a larger framework—utilizes tales from African, Cajun, Native American, and French-European traditions.

Atlanta-based flutist and composer Nicole Chamberlain wrote the score for St. Romain's libretto. Chamberlain says she likewise integrated a number of different styles into the work. Featuring an overall sound that's classically operatic, the work incorporates chords and melodies with jazz, blues, and folk influences. “Because the stories are pulled from many different cultural backgrounds, I tried to integrate that into the music,” she says. “But it's largely American so I wanted it to have a very American sound.” To familiarize children with operas of the past, references to famous works are also woven throughout the piece: the music of the famous Rhinemaiden scene of Wagner's Das Rheingold accompanies a water scene in Rabbit Tales, and the Queen of the Chickens sings the Queen of the Night's aria from The Magic Flute.

Chamberlain says that composing for children was more challenging than composing for her usual adult audiences. “Adults will try to be pleasant if they don't like something,” she says. “Kids will be blunt. It's a tougher audience for sure. And you can't be condescending when you write because they will catch on.”

Some of the designs for the look of Rabbit Tales.
  • Some of the designs for the look of "Rabbit Tales."
The work also faced some challenging technical restrictions: To travel around to various schools the entire production—singers, musicians, instrumentation, set, costumes—has to be able to fit into a van and the work has to be adaptable to various environments, from outdoor settings to school auditoriums, libraries and cafeterias and with no tech support. Rabbit Tales utilizes four singers—two sopranos, tenor and baritone—and a keyboardist. The sets and costumes are also simple. “We started approaching the show as a traveling troupe of story-tellers.” says set designer Michael Benedict, who also works full-time at the Atlanta Opera as production manager. Characters in Rabbit Tales arrive on stage, literally, with trunks and suitcases. “Goal number one for children is to keep it fun and engaging. We didn't want the story to take itself to seriously. It's really about making it fun for them.” To that end, the show has audience participation, call and response, clapping, and even the possibility for students to play their own self-made instruments.

Because Harris was a white author collecting black folk tales written in dialect, the Br'er Rabbit stories have long been the subject of criticism, a concern which the creators shared and tried to handle respectfully. “We had a lot of discussions about it because that's such a part of past treatment of these stories,” says Chamberlain. Rabbit Tales does not use dialect.

“I feel confident that we're staying true to the spirit of just telling the stories,” Benedict agrees. “We wanted to be sensitive. We're trying to honor these stories. In that way, I think we've been successful.”

After its premiere this weekend, the new opera has been booked for metro area schools this fall and spring and will have several more public performances throughout the year.

The Atlanta Opera's first-commissioned opera, "Rabbit Tales," will have its world premiere on Saturday, October 29, at 1 p.m at the Wren’s Nest, 1050 Ralph David Abernathy SW. Family-friendly activities, including storytelling, museum tours, craft activities and face painting, begin at 11 am. Participants are invited to bring picnic lunches. The event is free and open to the public. For more information visit the Atlanta Opera.

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