I attended the world premiere of the MN Opera’s brand new opera Edward Tulane based upon the novel The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by celebrated Newbery Award winning Minnesota author Kate Dicamillo. The Production Design is simply stunning and the episodic nature of the story allows for that aspect to really shine. What struck me as well about the Opera is it’s generous use of humor. It’s a children’s tale told in a way that could appeal to children but also plays well to the mainly adult audience. Performed in English and with English captions projected above the stage. The captions are needed, not just because the operatic style can make it difficult to catch every line, but also because much of the humor comes from what it is said not simply the gist and the emotions behind it. I found it to be a thoroughly enchanting production, accompanying Edward on his journey was magical.
The Libretto is by Mark Campbell with music by Paola Prestini, having not read the novel I cannot comment on how faithful the adaptation is. I can say that the story as told, works. We meet Edward, who is a large China rabbit doll, when he is received as a christmas gift by Abilene. Abilene loves Edward from the moment she lays eyes on him, he is more reserved. That first night Abilene’s Grandmother tells her a bedtime story that is wonderfully dark and very cleverly acted out for us, it’s a highlight of the production. When Edward is lost overboard on a sea voyage he begins a journey that will take him in contact with many characters and bring him into very different lifestyles. Along the journey he will spend time under the sea (beautifully realized), then rescued by a fisherman and his wife who are empty nesters. Next with a drifter and his dog, riding the rails and finally with a young girl named Sarah Ruth, who is gravely ill, and her brother Bryce in a home with an abusive father where Act 1 ends. Act 2 begins with the revelation that Sarah Ruth has died and Bryce and Edward run away to become street performers. Finally after a violent attack on Edward in a diner, he ends up in a doll store, repaired but one of many dolls all hoping to be adopted. These various homes and owners all teach him how to appreciate love and how to show it. By the end of the story he is ready to love unreservedly when he once again comes into the possession of a new little girl and her mother.
I cannot with any confidence evaluate the quality of the various performers singing voices. I can say that for me the stand outs vocally were Jack Swanson as Edward, Brian Vu as Bryce, and Jasmine Habersham as his sister Sarah Ruth. Swanson, a native of Stillwater MN is said to be a rising star on the Opera scene and it’s not hard to see why. There is a sequence in the second act that wonderfully showcases his range in a way that even a novice operagoer like myself can appreciate. But in addition to his voice it was his performance choices that brought to full force the dry humor of the script. Edward is a character that watches and listens, and never really gets to interact verbally with the other characters, he shares his thoughts, mostly directly to the audience. We feel like we know the character and more than anything else his temperament, which is a testament to Swanson’s nonverbal performance as much as to his vocals. Of the other performers there was definitely a volume issue with some of the performers, making again the captions a necessity rather than an occasional convenience.
Certainly a production like this the other creative departments deserve equal praise with the performers. The magnificent set designs by Walt Spangler create a larger world for Edward to traverse. Whether it’s that wonderful under the sea sequence, which also highlights the brilliant costumes designs of Victoria (Vita) Tzykun and lighting design of Marcus Doshi, or the Fisherman’s crooked home, it all looks like a children’s story book come to life. And not the broad cartoonish illustrations of most children’s books but the detailed and textured illustration like those of the novels illustrator Bagram Ibatoulline. Tzykun’s costumes are wonderful throughout, the standout being those of the undersea creature, that sequence is so wonderfully realized that we wish more of the story took place there. It’s simply a stunning production design from top to bottom and the entire productions comes together seamlessly under the stage direction of Eric Simonson and Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya. With so many location changes happening fluidly it seems fitting to also give some praise to the Stage Manager Jerry K. Smith.
Edward Tulane is a great introduction to the Opera for young audiences. It is a story they may know, it has wonderful sets and costumes which can introduce them to the creativity and real world magic that live performances can embody. The Opera runs through October 16th for for information and to purchase tickets go to https://mnopera.org/season/2022-2023/edward-tulane/.
Here are few more photos by Cory Weaver from the production to wet your appetite:
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