Arts Listings

Oakland Opera’s ‘Les Enfants Terribles’

By Jaime Robles, Special to the Planet
Tuesday October 03, 2006

The Oakland Opera Theater opens this Friday its third Philip Glass opera—the compelling dance opera Les Enfants Terribles. This final opera of his trilogy based on the work by French artist Jean Cocteau, Les Enfants Terribles has been described by Glass as Cocteau’s “tragedy”: 

“If Orphée is Cocteau’s tale of transcendence and La Belle et la Bête his romance, then Les Enfants Terribles is his tragedy. Like the others, it articulates Cocteau’s belief in the power of imagination to transform the ordinary world into a world of magic. But unlike the two previous works, in which transformation leads to love and transcendence, Les Enfants Terribles takes us to the world of Narcissus and, ultimately, Death.” 

The opera, which is sung in French with a narration in English, tells of a teenage brother and sister, Paul and Elizabeth, who after the loss of their parents strive to live in a fantasy world they call “playing the game.” Increasingly isolated, they pass the days acting out their bizarre imaginings.  

Two friends—Gerard and Agathe—join them to form an oddly four-sided love triangle. When Paul falls in love with Agathe, Elizabeth connives to have Gerard marry Agathe. By ensuring that her brother will never leave her, Elizabeth leads them both into destruction. 

Although the original story was set in Paris, director Tom Dean has moved the setting to 1954 French Indochina. Placing the story amidst the turmoil of war, Dean gives the opera a context that lends motivational logic to the characters’ escapism. It also restages the piece as a commentary on the self-reflective nature of colonialism. The children of the story are adopted, just as in Indochine, French couples found it fashionable to adopt Vietnamese children who were then treated as someone (or something) between a child and a servant.  

Soprano Joohee Choi makes her Oakland Opera Theater debut in the principle role of Elizabeth. Choi recently completed a two-year residency with the Los Angeles Opera, and was acclaimed for her performances in Aida, Romeo et Juliette, Der Rosenkavalier, and Falstaff.  

Axel Van Chee returns to Oakland Opera Theater in the role of Paul. Recently described by Opera News as a “resonant baritone with striking stage presence,” Chee performed Captain Valentine in Oakland Opera Theater’s Johnny Johnson. 

Mezzo-soprano Cary Ann Rosko plays Agathe. Tenors Ben Johns and Johathan Smucker alternate in the role of Gerard.  

Soprano Choi says she had doubts about singing the part of Elizabeth. Although she wanted to add Glass’ work to her repertoire, she was taken aback by the piece’s difficulty. At first glance, she says, the music looked simple: “just a piano line.” Further study revealed the opera’s difficult tones and disharmonies.  

Baritone Chee agrees, describing the music as a game of cat and mouse: “The singers are the cat and the notes are the mice. You have to keep chasing them.” 

The music layers an intense rhythmic drive with a melodic line that Chee describes as “very romantic.” There are no duets or trios within the opera; the singers continuously switch from line to line, the music making slight shifts between singers. Because the music is minimalist, however, the smallest shift can sound huge. 

The singers agree that the melodic lines are lovely. In contrast, Chee remarks, this “very interesting and beautiful” melody provides the setting for a disturbing text. The story is a classic tragedy, with the characters fated to die, unaware that their obsessiveness will ultimately destroy them.  

The original score was written so that the singing line could be played on one piano; second and third pianos enrich the music by adding subtle complexity. Oakland Opera has engaged four of the Bay Area’s top accompanists—Skye Atman, Paul Caccamo, Daniel Lockert and Kymry Esainko—to perform the three-piano score under the musical direction of Diedre McClure.  

Dance, integral to the opera, is woven in from play’s beginning to end, and represents the children’s fantasy world. Each singer has his or her dance double, and must dance as well.  

The eight dancers working with the singers on stage are from the Oakland-based Nguyen Dance Company. Choreographer Danny Nguyen was recently recognized as one of the seven best creative choreographers in the Bay Area at Paul Taylor’s annual choreographic symposium in San Francisco. 

The sets, painted by Garrett Lowe, represent the house the characters inhabit, and like the music and the realities the children inhabit, are built in many levels like an intricate labyrinth. 

Once again Oakland Opera is offering a unique and fascinating theatrical experience with excellent singers, musicians and performers. The company’s increasing recognition for its innovative performances of 20th and 21st century operas is well earned and deserves the best of the community’s support.  

Oakland Opera Theater presents three operas per year, two fully staged and one in concert. Thanks to Jo Vincent Parks, a new member of the board of directors, the theater will launch a concert series this year that will include recitals and instrumental music. 


Les Enfants Terribles 

8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays from Oct. 6 to Oct. 22 at the Oakland Metro Operahouse,  

201 Broadway, Oakland (one block from Jack London Square). 763-1146,