It’s always a little humbling when you’re asked to direct a piece you don’t know. Since I’ve been working in the opera business for a while I pride myself on knowing the repertoire. So when I recently had this happen—with a work by Ravel, one of my favorite composers—I was immediately curious to figure out why this great work had never been on my radar. I quickly figured out it wasn’t that the music is in any way inaccessible. If you love Ravel’s greatest hits—Boléro, Daphnis et Chloe, La Valse—you’ll love this piece. L’enfant is unmistakably pure Ravel! Then could it be the text? But this was written by Colette—that amazing and provocative early 20th century French writer who also penned Gigi and was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. (There was even a recent movie about her starring Keira Knightley!)
Maybe it was the subject matter? Let’s see—a charming quasi-fairy tale about a misbehaving young child who has encounters with dancing chairs, a grumpy grandfather clock, and two amorous cats and nurses an injured singing squirrel back to life. What’s not to like about that?
And then I figured it out—why L’enfant is rarely produced: 1) It’s an unusual length. At just 52 minutes, it barely counts as one act in the opera house. So any theater producing it needs to find a companion piece—and there are very few operas of comparable length. 2) Along with eight principal singers covering 21 roles, the piece requires a children’s chorus and an adult chorus, and a sizeable and virtuosic orchestra. 3) L’enfant needs that rare conductor who is equally at home with vocalists and instrumentalists and who has a sense of theater and collaboration.
Obviously, none of these have to do with the accessibility, playfulness, joy and depth that this opera provides. So leave it to Pacific Symphony to figure out that this is the perfect piece for an orchestra to program in a situation that is much more flexible, nimble and freewheeling than most opera houses are able to be. And thank you, Pacific Symphony, for inviting me and a first-rate group of performers and designers to have the rare treat to produce this masterpiece, and to have the pleasure of presenting it to your audiences.
You and I—we’re all richer for being able to add L’enfant to our repertoires!
– Bob Neu