Quite an Octopus's Garden: Nora & Co. Dazzle
by John W. Lambert
June 19, 2007, Chapel Hill, NC: Long Leaf Opera's Festival '07 continued on June 19 with the world premiere of Caroline Mallonée's Nora the Nonapus, an opera for and with children that was created with students of Estes Hills Elementary School, located at 500 N. Estes Drive, Chapel Hill.
When I was a little kid — a little fat kid — I didn't like "Tubby the Tuba" 'cause I identified too closely with the title character. I've heard, first-hand, similar reservations about other works for children — Amahl, the crippled boy in Menotti's Christmas opera, whose mom is reduced to petit larceny; or Peter, the brash, self-confident but clearly neglected hero of Prokofiev's tale about a certain wolf — and never mind the sad fate of the duck. With these memories flooding back, we approached the world premiere of Caroline Mallonée's Nora the Nonapus with, let's say, curiosity. After all, the tale deals with yet another creature who is "different" and thus, in the eyes of some — and most particularly in terms of her own individual self-esteem — comes up wanting. In this case, Nora's attribute involves one tentacle too many — she's not like the other octopi, and she knows it. But first things first.
After introductory remarks by Dale Minge, Principal of Estes Hill Elementary School, the short evening of music and theatre began with Mallonée's brief, often cryptic "Even the Moon" (2000), an atonal mini-cycle of five songs to texts by Carl Sandberg. These were composed for soprano and percussion and apparently were to have been done in the Paul Green Theatre with prepared piano — which might have given a fair impression of percussion — or harp, but the prepping of the piano — by inserting various nuts, bolts, screws, washers, and other "foreign" bits — proved daunting — and never mind the challenge of un-preparing it before the opera — so the keyboard, played by Deborah Hollis, was au naturel. The songs were allocated among four singers — Anne Campbell, Melinda Whittington, Ariel Reed, and Cara Valenti, with Reed drawing the set's most substantial text and Campbell drawing two of the shorter numbers. The performances were convincing enough and also short enough that few members of the large audience — which included a substantial number of young people — fidgeted unduly. (As representatives of the senior sector of society, my companion and I fidgeted some, for the music was off-putting in the sense of a lot of academic compositions of a certain 20th-century period, but this style was not carried over into the evening's main work.)
Nora the Nonapus is a creature based largely on total-school efforts at Estes Hills Elementary School. The opera follows an award-winning children's book by former students. Duke-trained composer Mallonée, of pulsoptional, the experimental composers' collective, wrote the work using themes — melodies — developed under her guidance by Estes Hills students. Whole rafts of young people took part in the brilliantly-costumed and effectively-lit production — there were several contingents of instrumentalists — mallet instruments, mostly, and bells, with some piano accompaniment, the net result of which sounded a lot like a gamelan orchestra — and lots of octopi, kelp (which turn out to be animate beings), jelly fish, tunas, lobsters, starfish, a shark, and a flock (if that's the right term) of clams. All these were ingeniously done up, with the clams and the jelly fish being among this observer's favorites.
Of course, where you have a bunch of young octopi (and never mind those fishes), you have the makings of a school, so adults have a few roles as the tale unfolds: there's Nora's mom, sung by Anne Campbell. There's the teacher, Miss Tentaloupe, sung by Crystal Stroupe. There's a principal, played with astonishing dignity and grace by — well, Principal Dale Minge, whose snorkel, flippers, and oh, how wild trunks elicited howls of laughter. Nora was grandly and sensitively portrayed by Annabella Gong, and her antagonist, Boyd, the Bullypus, was nicely acted and sung by Ashleigh Wilkinson.
At the risk of telegraphing the plot, let's simply say that the ninth member comes in handy (no pun intended) when Boyd locks the teacher in the supply closet, ties up the octopi with kelp(!), and commences to lording over the whole scene. Nora slips out her extra tentacle and frees her pals, the teacher is released, the principal is summoned to discipline the big offender, and the show ends happily with everyone embracing differences and diversity. It was, in a word, charming — utterly charming. And it was done with such expert timing and precision that it seemed a very short moment in the theatre, although the melodic opera ran about half an hour. For the non-stop action, there's director David Sorrells to thank. Pianist Rachel Nerula did some filling-in of textures and provided occasional bits of walking-around music. The conductor was Gloria Davis, whose watchfulness mirrored that of all the participants. It was quite a show, and I urge anyone reading this who missed it to look for opportunities to see future presentations or at the very least one of the house recordings of the premiere.
The cast was large, but since we've called out the names of all the principal artists already, it might make sense to name the others, so there follows the entire supporting cast, arrayed by roles, as provided by Long Leaf Opera.
Octopi: Gabrielle Cappeletti, Julianne Cho, Jehmaika Howard, James
Jennings, Khalil Chambers, Sarah Owre, Jeremy Todas-Ambaras, Isabella
Lebeau, Andrew Newgard, Gianni Hooker, & Bijan Zakerin;