Willy Wonka and the Opera Factory: UK Companies Pass Up a Children's Work That Should Be a Sure-Fire Hit
Tuesday, April 13, 2004
The Independent [London] - 13 April 2004
In the commercial world of movie adaptations, where the number of bums on seats is everything, Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is one of the most bankable and enduring properties around. The 1971 movie based on the book, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, is still Warner Brothers' bestselling home video. Indeed, a new film adaptation is currently in pre-production, starring Johnny Depp and directed by Tim Burton, with a budget rumoured to be well in excess of $50 million. Warner Brothers understand that this tale of a little boy who wins a golden ticket to visit a magical chocolate factory is a true modern children's classic, and that its zany, madcap morality has huge international recognition across a wide range of demographics.
However, the arcane world of UK opera, largely reliant on public subsidy and government hand-outs, takes a different view. For, despite their apparent and oft-stated desire to build new audiences and to revitalise the repertoire, the British opera establishment has so far cold-shouldered an exciting new opera version of this very same story.
The Golden Ticket has been written by the composer Peter Ash and librettist Donald Sturrock. It has been rehearsed in workshops at the Royal National Theatre. It has won a £70,000 innovation award from NESTA. It has enthusiastic supporters in Sir Simon Rattle, Felicity Dahl and Trevor Nunn, as well as opera stars such as Gerald Finley and Robert Tear. Yet no British opera company has taken up the gauntlet and decided to stage it.
"I am flabbergasted," says Liccy Dahl, the author's widow. "This country never seems to take the chance to open gates to children. Internationally, this is Roald's most successful story. Children still love it, yet because opera is the most expensive form of theatre to put on, it's too much of a risk."
Simon Rattle is even more enthusiastic. "Peter Ash and Donald Sturrock have put together a wonderful new piece, full of humour, wit, subtlety and virtuosity," he says. "All they need now is for someone to stage it. I love it, and I really believe it will make a perfect family opera."
Six years ago, Sturrock and Ash were involved as stage director and conductor in the first Dahl children's opera. Fantastic Mr. Fox [by American composer Tobias Picker] was presented by an Englishman, the late Peter Hemmings ó but it was an American opera company, the Los Angeles Opera, that saw the potential of the story and backed the project. They may have been influenced by their connection with Hemmings (he founded the company in 1985), but they were rewarded for their faith by a sell-out run in the 3,000-seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Fantastic Mr. Fox has yet to be picked up by a British opera company.
For the American production, the stage and costume designs were by Gerald Scarfe, who sees Dahl's imaginative and entertaining tales as an ideal vehicle for bringing new audiences to opera. He is another fan of The Golden Ticket and would love to be involved in its staging. "I love opera. I love the spectacle of it especially," he says, "and it's through the visual that you make the music accessible to children. There has to be a way of bringing children into opera, and I hope Charlie and his golden ticket are it."
Sturrock, the librettist, is an independent television producer who was once part of the BBC's award-winning Arena team. He has been adapting Dahl stories for more than 12 years, ever since he put together a concert version of one of Dahl's Revolting Rhymes with Julie Walters and the London Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall. Many of these adaptations by Sturrock have, in turn, been conducted by his co-worker on The Golden Ticket, the young American composer Ash. But The Golden Ticket was Ash's first foray into composing opera. "I looked at the story of Charlie while I was preparing for Fantastic Mr. Fox," he says, "and I knew as soon as I read it that it would make the perfect opera."
The major obstacle to a happy outcome at that starting point was legal. Dahl had sold the stage rights to Warner Brothers, who were reluctant to let anyone else in on such a potentially lucrative act. But a change in copyright law allowed the Dahl estate to claim back an element of the rights, and so the project was suddenly on. Trevor Nunn, then the artistic director of the National Theatre, lent Sturrock and Ash the Royal National Theatre Studio in which to stage a workshop on the piece, and the likes of Tear and Finley, who had already sung Mr. Fox, volunteered to take part.
"It's a great story and the music fits it perfectly, but it is an opera, not a musical, so the music is quite difficult unless you're properly trained," Finley says. "Dance has pieces like The Nutcracker for children, but there isn't anything in opera for them. This should be it. We had a lot of fun doing it, and I'd love to be in a production if it happens."
But it wasn't going to happen at the National. "Trevor felt it had to be a piece that could use his ensemble, and though many of them sing, they don't read music and weren't of the standard needed for opera," Strurrock says. "He wished us luck, and gave us every encouragement ó short of offering to produce it."
Representatives from ENO and the Royal Opera were invited to the studio showing. None came, but representatives of a small chamber orchestra, the Manchester Camarata, did, and on the strength of what they had seen, they decided to stage a concert performance in Manchester's Bridgewater Hall in 2001.
It was a sell-out disaster. Although it was advertised as a concert, unsuspecting children flocked to it expecting a stage musical based on the movie. There was an interval exodus, with demands for returned ticket money.
But in the audience as well were assessors from NESTA, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. They had seen the potential of the piece. They realised that this opera was slipping through the cracks of the system. Extraordinarily, it was being ignored by the UK opera establishment, not despite the popularity of the original story, but because of it. Public bodies were actually refusing funding because the project was too populist. NESTA helped Ash and Sturrock to promote the opera and enabled them to cast their net outside UK for someone to stage it.
In 2002, a white knight appeared on the horizon in the shape of the Florentine Opera of Milwaukee. They went some way towards raising the necessary budget of $1 million, but, says their general manager Dennis Hanthorn, "we couldn't do it alone. Ultimately, we would have to be a junior partner. What was needed was for three or four major venues to come in as co-producers and agree to take the show."
Hanthorn came to London and had a very positive meeting at the Barbican. "We'd definitely be interested in it as a good Christmas show," the Barbican's artistic director Graham Sheffield said at the time. "The Golden Ticket is theatrical and it's got dramatic nous. It's not just 'well written'. And in the hands of a good director it could certainly fly. But we're not in a position to produce it. We would have to take it already made." But who would take on the responsibility of making it? Who would agree to lead this consortium?
Earlier last year, Judith Isherwood, the new chief executive of the Wales Millennium Centre ó Dahl was Welsh-born ó showed interest in being that major partner, but her interest waned as the financial pressures of ensuring that the new theatre opens on time increased.
Fiona Morris, however ó an executive music producer at BBC Wales ó had other ideas. A long-time fan of the project, she is now deep in negotiations both within the BBC and with Sturrock and Ash about a film version of the opera. Its production would involve a summer-long television search for the young cast, before being broadcast in the winter.
This year, the BBC is already planning a television opera version of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's American-French children's classic The Little Prince [originally produced by Houston Grand Opera], with music by the Oscar-winning British composer Rachel Portman. If that works, The Golden Ticket could follow in 2005. "We're also talking to Youth Music (the lottery-funded facilitator) about The Golden Ticket," Morris says, "because we see this as an opportunity to show children that opera is not something to be scared of. And Peter Ash's terrific new score gives us a wonderful chance to do just that."
So will the story have a happy ending? As with most of Dahl's stories, it's hard to tell. But a key figure in the outcome might just be Donald Gordon, the 73-year-old chairman of the third-largest property developer in the country, Liberty International, who last year donated £20 million to be shared equally between the Royal Opera House and the Wales Millennium Centre.
At Covent Garden, chief executive Tony Hall greeted the donation with delight. "Not only does this provide us with vital funds to put towards staging new productions," he declared, "but it also forges exciting links with the new Wales Millennium Centre." As Hall has been one of the few people in the British opera establishment to enthuse about the project, Sturrock is quietly optimistic. But he is worried that, once again, fine words may not be translated into action. "There's a golden opportunity here," he says, "for an opera company to stage a new work which will appeal to a new audience, and which will have them leaving the theatre with smiles on their faces. Contemporary opera does not need to feel like a cold shower. It just needs someone brave enough to take on the challenge."
By Simon Tait
(C) 2004 The Independent - London. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved