Over the hill, through the woods

Juneau Lyric Opera mounts production of 'Little Red Riding Hood'

Posted: Thursday, May 06, 2004

For once, soprano Kathleen Wayne doesn't have to be worried about getting carried away on stage. She's playing 10-year-old Little Red Riding Hood, whose trip to grandmother's house is periodically interrupted with trips to the strawberry patch and showdowns with mocking birds.

Wayne, Cyndee Sugar and Mike Wittig star in the Juneau Lyric Opera's three-actor, five-role, one-act, 40-minute production of the opera, which runs at 7 p.m. Friday, May 7, 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday, May 8, and 3 p.m. Sunday, May 9, at McPhetres Hall, near Fourth and Gold Streets. Tickets are $7 for all ages and available at Hearthside Books or at the door.

"It's very silly and it's very funny," said Wayne, a 15-year member of the Lyric Opera. "Cyndee and I were talking about how it feels so weird to do things over the top. We're usually criticized for doing those sort of things. With this show, we don't have to be so careful in our actions."

Director William Todd Hunt encouraged the cast to "make it big." The story itself is a straightahead adaptation, written by children's opera composer Seymour Bararb, of the classic tale. Grandmother does not get eaten, but the wolf is killed.

The Lyric Opera had plans to stage "Barber of Seville" this spring, but decided to move the large production to 2005 to coincide with the opera's 30th anniversary. The opera decided to fill the space with a children's one-act, and Hunt happened to have a copy of Barab's adaptation on his shelf.

"It's one of the most-respected children's operas around, and I looked at it and thought that it was just a hoot," Hunt said. "It's a small cast too, so it was relatively easy to cast and costume."

Barab's work was conceived and composed to be produced on the fly in a school setting. So the set is minimal. The opera will run four times at McPhetres Hall and a few more times in area elementary schools.

"It musically bridges the gap between musical theater and opera," Hunt said. "(Barab has) written it in a way that is very natural sounding for a speech rhythm. Learning it is hard, because it doesn't fall into a typical melodic sort of phrase. When you're trying to move with your music and your lines, it's a little bit more of a challenge."

"What's probably the most tricky part is talking in rhythm," Wayne said. "I'm sure he wrote it to sound like someone talking, but it's always hard to make it sound natural. As a musician, my mind is more cued into singing a line than it is saying a line."

Born in Chicago in 1921, Barab is well-known for his comic one-acts and his operas for young audiences. His version of "Little Red Riding Hood" was the first American opera produced in post-isolationist China, according to www.seymourbarab.com. His Civil War opera "Philip Marshall," based on Fyodor Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. According to the site, author Kurt Vonnegut once said, "Barab's music is full of magic. He proved to an atheist that God exists."

"It's very short, but it's good music," Wayne said, "There are spaces for cadenzas and ad-libbing, so there are a couple parts which have been nice to play around with and show off the voice."

The play starts with the actor who portrays the woodsman and wolf (Wittig) delivering a monologue out of character and applying makeup. At the end of the speech, he turns into a wolf and launches into the first wolf song. The story then begins.

The action moves to Little Red (Wayne) and her mother (Sugar) discussing the things that Red needs to take care of on the trip. Red ventures into the forest and soon meets the wolf for the first time. Each character gets a solo later in the opera.

"The characterizations that the singers have given the roles are the funniest parts," Hunt said. "It was a process that sort of grew as we were going through the blocking. Some of the things that came out are still evolving."

Little Red (Wayne) is a 10-year-old in the opera's production. Her grandmother (Sugar) is a retired opera diva. Red spends part of the play mimicking, naturally leading to big gestures and prima donna behavior.

"Red has this general sense of a happy-go-lucky child who is easily distracted," Hunt said. "She just loves running around the forest teasing the animals, singing to the birds."

Since the woodsman kills the wolf, and since Wittig plays both characters, he must find a way to resolve the story.

"The way that Mike plays the part, as soon as he read it through, he was just perfect," Hunt said. "He's a physical comedian. In this piece, they stay away from any kind of overt lechery (on the wolf's part). And its evil is pretty tame. But he's the big, bad wolf. He's not a nice guy. Still he's a funny guy. It's almost sad to see him go."

Though the action is essentially silly, Wittig's wolf was scary enough to frighten Wayne's children, Nelli, 5, and Anna, 2. They arrived at rehearsal one night during the scene where the wolf is laying in wait in the grandmother's bed.

"They were there with their eyes wide open, and we weren't even in costume," Wayne said. "(Anna) said, 'I don't like that big dog.'"

Director - William Todd Hunt.

Wolf/Woodsman - Mike Wittig. Mother/Grandmother - Cyndee Sugar. Little Red Riding Hood - Kathleen Wayne.

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