Young Adult Fiction Goes Dystopian, Opera Follows Suit

Email a Friend

While the big news at Minnesota Opera this week is that the company’s November world premiere of Silent Night, an opera by Kevin Puts, just netted the Pulitzer Prize for music, this month the company also unveils its newest work, Susan Kander’s The Giver, based on Lois Lowry’s seminal, 1993 young adult novel of the same name.

And it has all the makings of a smart opera, with a dystopian society set in 2065, the coming-of-age of a twelve-year-old boy, and the mitigation of passion and emotionlessness. The plot concerns Jonas, a boy who is designated to become a messianic figure who inherits the memories and feelings of history and his path towards taking on that burdensome yet enlightening role. That Minnesota Opera is presenting this as a work for young, age-appropriate, singers is an even further incision to the heart of Lowry’s work, which won the Newbery Medal in 1994 and was often challenged and banned almost immediately upon publication.

Mention The Giver to people of a certain age and you’ll be met with an "I loved that book!" chorus, mixed with reminiscences of favorite scenes. It’s one of those rare birds that has also transcended generations, with many parents of the so-called Millennials also remembering leafing through the book when it was in their children’s backpacks.

It’s in this sense that The Giver may be one of those “perfect” operas in theory, and could signify an interesting course for contemporary opera. The drama and conflict are there, with some scenes begging to be sung for their cathartic depth and emotional peaks. But, more importantly, it’s one of those stories that transcends region and time. It’s still taught in schools and lapped up by students in a way where classic dystopian literature like Brave New World and Animal Farm occasionally fall flat. It is, for a young generation, the type of work that resonates as firmly and profoundly in the 21st century as Greek legend and drama did for denizens of the 17th century. And, really, is there all that much separating young Jonas from Orpheus?

Unsurprisingly, The Giver isn’t the first children’s or young adult book to become an opera: Tobias Picker penned The Fantastic Mr. Fox, based on the Roald Dahl work, and Maurice Sendak himself wrote the libretto to Oliver Knussen’s adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. Film composer Rachel Portman adapted Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. On the other end of the spectrum, Daniel Handler (known in literary circles as Lemony Snicket) also writes opera libretti and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is often viewed as an ersatz Ring Cycle.

And with these works, it’s not just children that benefit from the classic tales told anew through music (Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel is perhaps Exhibit A in that argument), just in the way that it’s not only children who read books in the Harry Potter or Twilight series. And, unlike television shows or movies, books are perhaps the most portable and transferrable of entertainment media. Setting aside the digital beasts for a moment, you need nothing beyond a hand and a set of eyes to consume a book, and chances are you can find the tome you’re looking for in most languages and countries. DVDs have regions. Television series air at different times, and legally obtaining the most current UK season of Downton Abbey in the US is a stretch.

For that, there’s also the argument that the books are invariably better than the movies, so why bother? But, following that line of argument, opera is as affably nerdy and geekily chic as hunting down a rare edition of The Sun Also Rises among the dusty aisles of the Strand. When executed correctly, bringing the two together doesn’t diminish either form, but rather enhances it. And, as composers and librettists have said before, it’s much easier to sell a new work when the premise and characters are already familiar—hitting on points of nostalgia is gravy. And combining those two factions of bibliophiles and operavores can be a tantalizing double-sum game of culture vultures.

Tapping into that idea is fellow blogger with an equally lucrative (and banned) book in The Hunger Games. With the first cinematic adaptation of the Suzanne Collins series now in theaters, Operateen is currently hosting a fantasy casting contest to name the ideal performer, composer and librettist for an operatic adaptation of the same series (in the interest full disclosure, this blogger is judging the entries). Love? Murder? Power? Identity? Sacrifice? Sounds like another night at the opera.