It’s no surprise that Neil Gaiman’s darkly comic horror novella Coraline (2002) was turned into one of the most successful and satisfying animated movies of our time. But when Mark-Anthony Turnage crafted it into a chamber opera on commission from The Royal Opera (which premiered it at the Barbican in 2018), perhaps a few eyebrows were raised.
Or maybe not. The U.S. premiere last Saturday, July 30, at Oakland’s Scottish Rite Center, courtesy of West Edge Opera, revealed the composer’s puckish side we always knew was there. Rory Mullarkey’s libretto was consciously made as a children’s opera, but Turnage’s score, apart from its manageable length, makes only a few concessions to the kiddos. It’s elegant and inventive music, slightly less dissonant than his usual scoring but unimpeachably modernist in its overall style.
The story, for those who don’t know, is about a young girl who, neglected by her working parents, goes exploring and discovers a door in her house that leads to a parallel world where the Other Mother and the Other Father are devoted to keeping her happy and entertained. Spookily, the Other World characters all have buttons for eyes, and the tale turns dark as the Other Mother pushes Coraline to accept buttons for her eyes. Subsequently, she discovers the ghosts of three other children who have been abducted and murdered by the Other Mother. Returning to the real world, Coraline discovers that the Other Mother has captured her parents, and she has to screw up her courage to rescue them.
Mullarkey’s libretto dispenses with two important characters from the book and introduces the Ghost Children much earlier to issue warnings and explanations to Coraline. The opera moves through the story at speed (under two hours) and effectively, though in some places the sentiments and explanations feel a little heavy-handed.
Motives flit through the 16-piece orchestra, often split or shared between instruments. The vocal writing, swift and mostly declamatory, flows into very brief arioso style. And yet, as Turnage showed in his previous opera, Anna Nicole (2011), but really throughout his career, he’s happy to throw popular-music references into the mix, as he does here, and he treats modern language with the non-classical slangy enunciation we’re familiar with. Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, the two aging thespians who live downstairs from Coraline, sing a vaudevillian waltz (their disreputable Other World counterparts devolve into a wheezing tango). Mr. Bobo’s mouse orchestra plays an off-kilter kind of big band jazz. And there are deft touches such as the father praising his cooking as “tastissimo” in falsetto, mirrored by Coraline’s snarky parody of it. That’s a perfectly real moment.
The West Edge production, capably directed by Tara Branham, was created in partnership with Papermoon Opera Productions, a new group whose design aesthetic comes from using nontraditional, reusable materials. Taking off from the Other Mother’s penchant for sewing, the back of Jefferson Ridenour’s set is a screen of sewn-together sheets and plastic drop cloths. Likewise, Christine Crook’s costume design has the Other Father wearing a cape made of a blanket. Set pieces are few and moved about in the space deftly by the company. Crook made some costumes out of trash bags and at least one wig out of paper. It’s somehow theatrical without being tacky.
Kendra Broom was in excellent voice as Coraline, if you can accept a full, ardent soprano as the voice of a 9-year-old. Although some of her movements and gestures were stock adult-as-children miming, overall she gave a strong performance.
Stephanie Sanchez, as Mother/Other Mother, has the most bravura role in the show, and she filled it out extremely well. The melodic intervals get more jagged as she reveals her murderous side, and Sanchez never flagged. Efraín Solís made a humorous, good-natured Father, and the supporting cast, including Krista Wigle and Jazmine Olwalia as Spink and Forcible and Joseph Meyers as Bobo, sang and acted capably. Ryan Bradford rounded out the cast nicely, singing with Wigle and Olwalia as the Ghost Children.
It would be lovely to report that West Edge Opera has now found its long-sought-after home, and if it has, the Scottish Rite Center has some advantages over places they’ve inhabited before. There’s a stage, the conductor and singers can make eye contact, the roof isn’t threatening to give way. The acoustics, however, leave something to be desired: In a big, echoey space, voices lose definition and sharpness, and details are lost. Turnage’s score include a celesta, and I swear there were times I was looking directly at the keyboardist playing the thing and couldn’t hear it.
Coraline plays twice more this weekend, on Aug. 5 and 7.