Peter Ash’s comic opera “The Golden Ticket,” based upon Roald Dahl’s subversively droll children’s novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” will have its Atlanta debut this Saturday, March 3, at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, presented by the Atlanta Opera. Repeat performances will take place March 6, 9 and 11. Ash, who composed the score, will conduct.
Ash began his professional musical life as a horn player, then as a conductor who specialized in contemporary music. He never considered himself a composer until a near-crisis in a conducting gig suddenly opened the door to opportunity.
“A composer didn’t deliver some film music that I was scheduled to conduct,” recalls Ash. “I needed the work, so I said to the director, ‘I’ll write this music.’ So I did, and it worked really well. I got asked to do other things and it evolved from there.”
Likewise, the idea for “The Golden Ticket” came during a conducting engagement. In the late 1990s, Ash was involved as conductor in the Los Angeles Opera’s premiere of Tobias Picker’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” also based upon a story by Dahl. Donald Sturrock, Dahl’s official biographer, was both librettist and stage director. The two began talking about turning “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” into an opera, with Ash composing the music to Sturrock’s libretto. They presented the idea to Felicity Dahl, the writer’s widow, who suggested they write a single scene.
The project trod a long and often rough road for over a decade. Britain’s National Lyric Theatre mounted workshops in 1997 and 2000, but it wanted a musical, not an opera. A concert production in 2001 proved a flop with its audience but attracted the attention of opera producers.
Finally, in 2007, the American Lyric Theatre commissioned a complete reworking of the opera, which premiered in 2010 at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. That fall, the Wexford Festival Opera performed it in Ireland. Critical reviews of the St. Louis production were mixed but tended favorable, while reviews of the Wexford production proved less than kind.
The Atlanta Opera performances come less than two years after the St. Louis premiere. That’s really new for what historically has been a relatively conservative-thinking Atlanta Opera before Dennis Hanthorn arrived in 2004 as general director.
Hanthorn became aware of “The Golden Ticket” in 2001, while with the Florentine Opera Company in Milwaukee. He followed its progress and became an enthusiastic proponent. He recognized, however, that until recently he had neither the funding nor technical capability to do the production justice. Now he does.
“’The Golden Ticket’ fits into the company’s overall goal to introduce new audiences and families to the world of opera,” Hanthorn wrote in an email. “The story of ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ is a story that has been read by many children. So there is a great deal of recognition and identification with the story.”
That’s not only due to Dahl’s book, of course. Two very different motion picture versions have exerted significant impact, bringing the story into the mainstream of pop culture in an iconic way. The first was Mel Stuart’s 1971 “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” starring Gene Wilder. Then, in 2005, Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” starring Johnny Depp, brought Dahl’s story to the big screen again, this time infused with Burton’s signature penchant for “creepy cute.” So embedded is the story in the public mind that the expression “golden ticket” had become idiomatic by the mid-1970s.
While some opera aficionados might sniff at a “children’s opera” as a mainstage production, one need only consider Janacek’s opera “The Cunning Little Vixen” or Humperdinck’s “Hänsel und Gretel” or a panoply of Russian opera based on fairy tales.
“What I’d like to think I’ve written is a ‘family opera,’ and I hope the addition of music has given the story an amplified human dimension,” Ash says. “On the other hand, one of the reasons we’ve been able to make it into an opera is that the four grotesque children are clearly commedia dell’arte characters, and what I’ve done is taken their archetypes and turned them into the stereotypes of opera singers.”
Augustus Gloop, the gluttonous fat boy, is a tenor. Violet Beauregard, the diva who chews the blueberry gum and becomes a giant blueberry, has a mad, lunatic coloratura fit. Veruca Salt, the spoiled rich girl, is a sassy mezzo who would like to be a soprano but has a five-note aria she sings over and over. Video violence-obsessed Mike Teavee is a stuttering countertenor, replete with Handelian “battle aria” sung in stile concitato.
“There’s a parody element going on in the whole piece,” notes Ash. “People have said, and I’ve only come to realize lastly, that it’s a compendium of what opera does. Even an adult who hasn’t been to an opera before will hear those.”
By stark contrast, Ash is quick to point out, the character Charlie is “real” rather than parody and is the only role actually sung by a child. Although the other “children” sing of what they desire for themselves, Charlie is not self-absorbed, displaying what Ash calls a genuine “inner self.” Perhaps this “normalcy” risks becoming boring on a most superficial theatrical level, but it also posits Charlie as a lens through which the audience can most honestly view Dahl’s story, and possibly themselves.