The Lion, The Unicorn, and Me, a new opera based on Jeanette Winterson’s acclaimed children’s novel, premiered in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Saturday night. Washington National Opera’s Artistic Director Francesca Zambello is interested in music and theatre that speaks to us today, and The Lion, The Unicorn and Me is no exception.
“I thought, ‘I really feel terrible. I’m going to write a story for myself,’” said Jeanette Winterson when asked about her inspiration for the book. The plot is a unique spin on the Nativity story with the unremarkable, but hardworking donkey as the hero. Composer Jeanine Tesori’s multilayered score fuses genres from jazz and musical theatre to opera, creating an engaging and quintessentially American sound. Poet J.D. McClatchy’s libretto employs animal sounds for wordplay (“heehaw heehawfully hungry” says the Donkey, “remissssssssed” says the Snake).
Most exceptional about this opera is that it can be interpreted on a number of levels. Those looking for mere entertainment will love the fun costumes and pop-infused tunes, while “deep-thinkers” will delve into ideas like “the smallest creature can make the biggest difference.”
Saturday night was all about debuts from several members of the cast to the costumes to the children’s chorus to conductor Kimberly Grigsby, but the most startling “debut” of all was the debut of a female composer on the WNO stage. (Believe it or not, WNO has never before featured the work of a woman composer.)
The cast, made up of members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, WNO’s Children’s Chorus, and several special guest artists, is all around exceptional. Fresh-faced 11-year old Henry Wager and the children’s chorus made their debuts with impressive confidence and polish. Wager is endearing and natural as the Angel and particularly winning in his aria “Is this thing on right?”
John Orduña sings beautifully as the Donkey. His high notes on the word “Bravo” are sure to elicit many “bravi” throughout the run. The Donkey’s aria about keeping his head down is moving and smart. As Tesori said in the Q&A session after the performance, we have a Donkey and Angel in each of us.
Soloman Howard is outstanding as the agile-voiced Lion – his “roars” are sung flawlessly in the rich beautiful basement of his voice. Another standout is Jacqueline Echols as the sophisticated and mysterious Unicorn, whose voice is shimmering and secure despite an outrageous pair of high heels.
Lisa Williamson is fun and sassy as the Flamingo, singing wonderfully from a swing, and Ian McEuen is entertaining as the Hippo, but even more entertaining in his puppetry work as the Dog. (Its tongue wags on high notes!)
The Lion, the Unicorn and Me
Closes December 22, 2013
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
1 hour, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $44 – $64
Friday – Sunday
Details and Tickets
Catherine Martin displays a drop dead gorgeous tone and impressive phrasing as Mary. Props to Deborah Nansteel for her amusing portrayal of a lollypop sucking, “too cool for school” Cat and Norman Garrett for his rich-voiced Elk.
The star who rivals all of the singers combined is Costume Designer Erik Teague. From striped socks on the Cat, to the perky tail of the Lion, to amazing black boots on the Flamingo, Teague pays strict attention to detail on every hip, flamboyant, and colorful costume.
Michael Yeargan’s set is minimal, but inventive, and Mark McCullough’s lighting is enchanting (especially during the Unicorn’s entrance). The orchestra sounds lovely overall, but is especially engaging in the warm sounds of the arrival of the Three Kings. Kimberly Grigsby conducts with the vivacity and spunk essential to pulling off Tesori’s brilliant “musical collage.”
The holidays are about giving and I have a way for you to give back to your children, the arts, and yourself: head over to the Terrace Theater sooner rather than later (The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me is only playing through the 22nd). This is what music, theater, opera, and art need – performances that are brilliant but accessible, smart but unpretentious. This isn’t an opera for children. This is an opera for everyone.
The Lion, The Unicorn, and Me . by Jeanine Tesori and J.D. McClatchy based on the children’s book by Jeanette Winterson . Directed by Francesca Zambello . Produced by Washington National Opera . Reviewed by Rebecca Evans.