Fanciful 'Fox' mixes music, storytelling


The repertoire of serious opera for children is small. Indeed, it's hard to think much past Gian Carlo Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors."

So when Tobias Picker, an up-and-coming composer in the opera world, chooses the genre for a follow-up after his splashy debut two summers ago, it's considered a world-class event.

The international spotlight was on the Los Angeles Opera last week as it unveiled Picker's "The Fantastic Mr. Fox."

The work is based on a story by British children's writer Roald Dahl. The scenery by Gerald Scarfe, a Disney animator, and the fabulously costumed foxes, hens, geese, porcupines, and hedgehogs, not to mention talking trees, tractor, and digging machines, are all part of a rare effort to expand the available opportunities to introduce children - and reluctant adults - to the world of classical music.

The story revolves around a turf war between three farmers and a family of foxes, who are aided by other animals in the forest, not to mention a chorus of powder-blue costumed youngsters representing the trees.

The original Dahl tale and language have been beefed up to appeal to adults too. More explanations have been added, along with a romantic subplot between a hedgehog and a porcupine that provides the opportunity for two of the show's most effective compositions - an aria of longing and a duet of romantic bliss.

The dramatic conflict is both practical and philosophical: Humans versus animals and, on a deeper level, technology versus nature.

The stage brims with creativity, from the sleek, pointy-nosed animals of the Scarfe-designed sets to the elegant, funny costumes. The costumes, cartoon versions of the animals, are worn by singers who also mime animal actions (chicken and goose wings beat, for example, and foxes paw the ground and air).

The early critical response has been mixed. One hometown critic acknowledged that the overall concept is "happily operatic," but chided the production for trying too hard in what he dubbed a "self-conscious" effort.

Opera-savvy adults may not be the best gauge of this work's effectiveness or longevity.

At a Friday children's matinee, going by the lengthy screams alone, something altogether aside from grown-up pronouncements appears to be under way at "The Fantastic Mr. Fox."

It would have been easy to mistake the performance for a show featuring the teen rock group Hanson, instead of an orchestra pit full of classical musicians and a stage teeming with formally trained singers.

The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, home of the Academy Awards broadcast, was filled to the rafters with Los Angeles-area school students who were surprisingly attentive to the music, making it possible for the few adults in the audience to actually enjoy the performance too. The supertitles engaged the crowd during the recitatives while the solos and duets brought hearty applause and cheers.

Ten-year-old Ivan, from Calabasas, Calif., appeared to speak for his group (which nodded enthusiastically in response to his words) in saying: "I like the Fox because he sings so well. I really like the classical sound."

To which fellow student Sean from Woodland Hills, Calif., added with a whoop and a smile, "I really liked the digging machine. Agnes is super-cool!"

"The Fantastic Mr. Fox" will cavort onstage in four more performances through Dec. 22.

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