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Review: Tricky Politics in Andrew Norman’s New Children’s Opera

As search parties set off, Georges tells Eoa about Earth, a place inhabited by “generous people, powerful, violent and frightening, fragile and needy people.” The scientists come across the missing child’s “sacred stick,” Mr. Norman’s name for a boomwhacker, a hollow percussion instrument that plays a note in a scale, signifying the child’s place in society.

Growing suspicious, the Moon People become a mob, accusing the intruders. But the missing child’s screams are heard, and the scientists fight off the Monster with their umbrellas. The Moon People give the scientists their boomwhackers to fix the spaceship, and the scientists leave their umbrellas behind so the Moon People can protect themselves. Eoa declines Georges’s invitation to fly with him and stares up as the rocket shoots back to Earth, singing a quiet message of hope and togetherness: “I … you … us.”

Mr. Norman’s music is given a committed performance by Mr. Rattle’s forces, even as much of the orchestral detail went unheard. The score is often imaginative, not least in the use of those boomwhackers. It’s full of familiar Norman touches, with its frenetic pace; its clouds of lyrical flight, dissonant and consonant at the same time; and its structural device of an opening explosion, containing within it all the thematic material that the piece proceeds to play out. Mr. Norman compiles astonishing crescendos as the drama ratchets up, building in volume and rhythmic complexity. A prologue, narrating in sound the rocket’s launch, is some of his most alluring writing.

Even so, whether because of the number of participants involved or the need to cater to young performers, “Trip” falls flat. Mr. Norman’s influences — Thomas Adès, garnished by John Adams and John Williams — poke through more intrusively than in his other recent works. The sound world of space is predictable, with a vibraphone at the fore. Voices, more often than not, are treated as just another instrument within that teeming texture: echoing solo instrumental lines, or being echoed by them.

More troubling, while several of Mr. Norman’s earlier, purely orchestral works have had a social, even political point (“Play” — his symphonic masterpiece — above all), none have been so obvious, or so simplistic, as this. An optimistic tale about the power of empathy to overcome discord, “A Trip to the Moon” often has an uncomfortable and surprising naïveté, at least in this production, staged by Karen Gillingham.

The work features a group of explorers, setting out from imperial Europe and dressed in the robes of authority and progress, winning over the natives they encounter with their technological superiority. The Moon People — their music based around elemental fifths, scales and processes of call and response — dance an elaborate pantomime, a choreographed welcome under the gaze of their queen, Ieoaoa (Iwona Sobotka), but quickly turn into a mob when faced with the astronomers.

All’s well that ends well, perhaps, even if the scientists have given up only their umbrellas, while taking a core symbol of the Moon People’s fraternity. The piece is well-meaning, yet it’s not at all aware enough of its reliance on stale tropes of cross-cultural encounters. The best art aimed at the young also speaks convincingly to adults, and on that front this opera, so innocently staged, is problematic.

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