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'The Secret Garden'

Published: Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 4:01 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 4:01 p.m.

When the San Franciso Opera and Cal Performances open “The Secret Garden” Friday, March 1 at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, it will be more than just another world premiere.


Nolan Gasser



What: World Premiere of “The Secret Garden” by Nolan Gasser and Carey Harrison, commissioned by San Francisco Opera in a co-production with Cal Performances.
When: 7:30 tonight, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. March 9 and 3 p.m. March 10.
Where: Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley
Tickets: $30 to $80 adults, $15 to $40 for kids up to 18. To reserve, go to sfopera.com or calperformances.org; call 415-864-3330 or 510-642-9988.
Special programs: At 3:30 p.m. March 2 and 5 p.m. March 9, stage manager Rachel Henneberry will lead multi-generational workshops on the themes, story, characters and music of “The Secret Garden” at the Alumni House, on the UC Berkeley campus. Tickets are $5 each. Recommended for children ages 6 and older, who must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. sfopera.com/gardenworkshop.

The multi-media production is also the first family opera ever commissioned by the San Francisco Opera and the first opera of any kind composed by Nolan Gasser of Petaluma.

“It's been such a thrilling experience,” Gasser said, on his way to a rehearsal in San Francisco. “(SF Opera General Director) David Gockley is a brilliant man with a forward-looking vision about opera commissioning … it's essential to the ecosystem of opera.”

The story of “The Secret Garden” follows an emotional arc from darkness to light, as two wounded children become transformed by their relationship to each other and to the earth.

“That's a message that everybody needs to hear, even those of us who are lucky enough to live in Sonoma County,” Gasser said. “The story is grounded in the belief that working in nature, planting the seeds and getting your hands dirty, is what enables souls and spirits to heal.”

Gockley, who commissioned “The Little Prince” to be performed at the Houston Grand Opera in 2003, asked Gasser to write an opera for all ages, after hearing his orchestral works.

Gasser worked with librettist Carey Harrison to come up with a few ideas for the project, but “The Secret Garden” always climbed to the top.

“It's a title that's quite well known, and it's transgenerational,” Gasser said. “You have grandmothers, mothers, daughters, granddaughters and boys as well who know and love the story.”

Harrison, a well-known British writer and son of actor Rex Harrison, narrated Gasser's symphony, “Cosmic Reflection,” during its 2009 premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

“We had already talked about collaborating on an opera,” Gasser said. “So I came armed with my own librettist.”

Based on the 1911 book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the opera libretto stays true to the original children's classic, unlike the 1991 Broadway musical, which changed the focus to the adults.

“For us, it's really the story of these kids,” Gasser said. “I love the idea of writing something that's inclusive of families and touches an audience that may not necessarily come to the opera.”

The production lasts just two hours including intermission, in order to keep young people with short attention spans engaged in the storyline.

“There's some compression that happened, but all of the important parts are definitely there,” said director Jose Maria Condemi, artistic director of Opera Santa Barbara.

The production incorporates video projections by painter Naomie Kremer, which help recreate the world of the sprawling Yorkshire manor house where the story is set. The setting, with servants speaking in broad Yorkshire accents, is not unlike the popular PBS series, “Downton Abbey,” and the pacing is snappy as well.

“We've gone to great lengths so that there is nothing static,” Condemi said. “It moves very fast.”

One of the big challenges was finding singers with enough training to sing the complex music yet appear young enough to portray the main characters, pre-teen cousins Mary Lennox and Colin Craven.

“The woman playing Mary is in her 20s, but she looks very much the part,” Condemi said. “The boy playing Colin is in his teens, but he's already a very, very mature musician.”

Gasser is hopeful that the new opera will be embraced by the public as well as by other opera companies in the future.

“It's already been picked up by Houston Grand Opera,” he said. “We are going to record the Houston performance, and it will be released on a commercial CD.”

Gasser said he tried to communicate the story's emotions in the music, creating melodies that people can sing while using his own sophisticated harmonies.

Ultimately, Gasser said, he views “The Secret Garden” as a love story among friends, children and parents.

“There's a particular scene where Mary says, 'I'm so happy I can scarcely breathe,' and I wanted to capture that sense of joy and freedom that she had never known,” he said. “I looked over at Carey, and he literally had tears coming down his cheeks.”

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.

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