BOSTON — When it comes to classical music for kids, there's not much out there. "Peter and the Wolf" and "Carnival of the Animals" remain the standards of orchestral works, while Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors" and Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" lead the very short list of operatic contributions to the field.
Enter composer/conductor Robert Kapilow, who has taken as his mission not only to add to that small body of music for children, but to personally introduce children and their parents to the world of classical music in a way that makes them feel both enriched and empowered.
With his Family Musik series, which began at the 92nd Street Y in New York in 1994 and continues for the second straight year in Boston as part of BankBoston's Celebrity Series, Kapilow provides a series of lively, sophisticated, often interactive projects that transform classical music into something accessible, engaging, and, dare I say it, fun!
Family Musik's most recent presentation was the world premire of "Many Moons," Kapilow's original children's opera based on James Thurber's classic story. With lyrics by Hilary Blecher and Jim Friedland, the opera tells how a young princess, who doesn't feel well after eating "a surfeit of raspberry tarts," is asked by her father the king, "What is your heart's desire?" When she answers, "I want the moon," the kingdom is thrown into an uproar to fulfill the request, and the solution is entertaining, wise, and poignant.
Kapilow's music, meanwhile, is a freewheeling, eclectic pastiche of styles that rolls merrily along from beginning to end. Sung by a cast of eight and excellently played by 19 members and guests of the Boston Chamber Music Society, the score is colorful, vibrant, expertly crafted, and tunefully accessible.
Kapilow quotes and borrows shamelessly - shades of "The Fantastiks," a bluesy bit reminiscent of "Porgy and Bess," a quote from "The Nutcracker," even a Mozartean-style quartet that somehow transforms into a jazzy Broadway number. In fact, the shifting and blending of operatic and music-theater styles happens throughout, but the fact that Kapilow does it seamlessly and with such ease and conviction makes it come together very effectively.
The numbers that show the most original voice are often the simplest, the most touching, and the most memorable. The show's highlights are two sweetly lyrical duets by Princess Lenore (the charming and talented 12-year-old Christy Romano) and the Jester (soprano Natalie Arduino). Those sections taking a high operatic tone were less convincing, with words tending to be obscured by both the style and intrusive amplification. As my two seven-year-old companions remarked, "It was very annoying, and it hurt my ears."
The opera gets off to a rather heavy-handed start and could use a trimming as well as faster pacing in spots. Though it is little more than an hour long and is energetically and fluidly directed, young audience members grow restless fairly quickly and easily. The proof is in the pudding.
Perhaps the strong- est element of the "Many Moons" production is Robert Kapilow himself, a delightfully humorous and charismatic pied piper with the energetic zeal of a televangelist.
In the opening setup, he explains the story and goes through the main musical themes in such a way that the audience immediately feels a part of the proceedings. And he invites the children to swarm the stage afterward to get up close and personal with the performers.
You can't overestimate the power of that personal contact to make young listeners feel, "I can understand this - this music is for me!"
* Other events in the 1997 Family Musik series are 'Everybody Dance Now!,' a children's interactive movement piece on March 8, and the world premire of 'MozartBridge,' or 'Build It Up and Tear It Down,' Kapilow's interactive romp through the compositional world of Mozart, on April 5. For more information about the Family Musik series, call (617) 482-2595.