For more than a decade, the Opera Theatre of Weston has introduced Vermont children - and in many cases their families - to the world of opera. The company’s latest offering is the East Coast premier of "The Secret Garden." It's an operatic rendering of the much-loved children's book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, composed by Nolan Gasser for the San Francisco Opera, where it premiered in 2013.
This week, more than 2,000 Vermont school children have visited the Weston Playhouse to experience first-hand the magic of a full-blown opera. Soprano Lora Rachel Davidson, who plays the lead role, says a similar experience launched her operatic career. Davidson is now a professional opera singer in New York. But she lived in Vermont as a teenager and studied voice with Lise Messier and Nan Noll, the Opera Theatre of Weston’s co-founders and artistic directors.
"They took me under their wing and opened my eyes to a world I’d only dreamed of," Davidson says.
Davidson’s character Mary Lennox is a spoiled 10-year-old raised in India by indifferent parents. When they die in a cholera epidemic, she’s sent to live in England on the estate of her uncle, Archibald Craven, who is equally neglectful and seldom home.
Mary is morose and ill-tempered at first. But when she steps outside the mansion, she makes some friends and begins to change. Her first friend is a robin, portrayed by Mary Anderson, one of several young local dancers who play animals in the Weston show. With the robin’s help, Mary finds the key to a secret walled garden that’s been locked ever since her uncle’s wife Lilias died in an accident 10 years earlier. She also meets Dickon, the nature-loving young brother of a servant, who helps her plant and tend the secret garden.
Mary explores the mansion, where she’s heard strange, moaning sounds at night, and meets Colin, the invalid son of her uncle and his late wife.
"He’s been told that he is sick and he’s not supposed to go outside," says tenor Pablo Bustos, who plays the role of Colin. "But the reality is, his father can’t bear to see him because he reminds him of his mother who died when he was born. Because of that, he’s always been sort of locked up. And Mary pushes his buttons and kind of gets him to do things."
Colin wonders at first if Mary is a dream. He’s never met a child his own age. He sends her off but begs her to come back. And she does. On one visit she tells Colin a story from India about a spoiled little Raja. Mary says Colin is spoiled too. Soon the two children are bickering like brother and sister.
Eventually, Mary convinces Colin that there’s nothing wrong with him that fresh air and exercise won’t cure. With Dickon's help, she wheels Colin to the garden in a wheelchair. Soon, he’s standing.
Bustos says the opera’s quick, sometimes challenging rhythm changes add vitality and excitement to the score.
"Each character has his own little theme and rhythmic pattern and instrumental pattern," Bustos says. "Mine’s kind of ghostly at first, but every time I come in, he’s a little more frustrated and angry."
Bustos says the opera is a modern work, with music that may be different from what some people are used to. There are some singable melodies, he says. But the music is also used to heighten the drama and create a feeling of intensity in the characters’ interactions.
The production is visually enhanced by an enormous, multi-layered backdrop of projected images created by videographer Naomi Kremer, who was also the scenic designer for the San Francisco production. The set design for Weston is simpler, but equally vivid - especially the gardens, which grow more lush and colorful as the children work and the season progresses.
"The garden is the miracle place," says artistic co-director Lise Messier. Messier says "The Secret Garden" is ultimately about friendship and the power of nature to heal. And not just Colin and Mary, but also the grieving Uncle Archibald who finds his way back home, through the garden, to his neglected family.
Matinee performances of "The Secret Garden" will be open to the public this Saturday, Jan. 10, and Sunday, Jan. 11, at the Weston Playhouse.