After garnering international acclaim with the completion of the Verdi Cycle in 2016, one might think Sarasota Opera could rest on its laurels for at least a bit—throw up some classics and crowd-pleasers and coast until 2018 or so. But just as the company has shown its mastery of the classics, it looks to the future with a redoubled emphasis on youth and family opera, including a new youth opera world premiere this month and a promising new coalition with six national opera houses looking to create new works.  

Entitled Rootabaga Country and playing November 11 and 12, this will be the sixth youth opera commissioned and world premiered by Sarasota Youth Opera (SYO), following on the heels of shows like 2012’s Little Nemo in Slumberland and 2004’s The Language of Birds. Inspired by the American fairy tales of Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories, the story centers around a family of three—Gimme the Axe and his two children, Please Gimme and Ax Me No Questions—as they set off through the magical world of the Rootabaga Country in search of clues and memories of their long lost mother. Composer/librettist Rachel J. Peters mined Sandburg’s more than 50 whimsical and wacky short stories to construct her one-act opera for young performers (and a couple adults), despite being initially unfamiliar with Sandburg’s stories herself. Commissioned for a youth opera but waiting for the rights to a different work, Peters stumbled across Sandburg’s stories in a happy accident and found what she had been looking for—modern day fairy tales that actually worked.

Not exactly modern, seeing as Sandburg published Rootabaga Stories in 1922, but a far cry more relatable than the stuff of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. Playful and amusing, Sandburg’s characters explore their world with joy—a stark contrast to the dark, and often violent, fairy tales of old that served as much to scare children straight as they did to entertain. “And they just didn’t speak to me like [Sandburg’s] speak to me,” says Peters. Even at his most surreal—spinning yarns of skyscrapers falling in love and raising a child—Sandburg never strays from the warm exuberance that any kid should relate to. “They’re the kind of stories you want to read out loud,” Peters says. “The words are delicious.” It’s a flavor she would have fun translating into music as the trio set off on their journey, from the delicate harps of the Land of Balloons to the slide whistle and “ridiculous” trumpet of the Land of Clowns.

And although Rootabaga Country is youth opera and Peters is unafraid to let it be goofy, it’s no child’s play. The constraints of youth opera may demand a production be one act, but Peters intends to push her young performers in that one act. “I don’t think it’s useful to pander to them,” she says. “And that’s not fair to them.” Indeed, much of her time went into expanding the roles of the children, who were not so prominent in the original stories, so that the young cast would have a chance to shine. The question is of striking a balance, to challenge young opera singers to their potential. “It’s an educational program and they want to learn and polish their musicianship,” Peters says. “They want to come out of this experience knowing something more than they did before.” That mindset made her a good fit for SYO, the only program in the United States that gives youth opera performers the full production treatment, i.e. putting the singers on the main stage, with professional musicians and professionally designed sets and costumes. 

But even with Rootabaga, that brings SYO to six world premieres of new operas since 1989, and that alone won’t slake Sarasota Opera’s hunger for new stories, and the new audiences they bring. Enter Opera for All Voices: Stories of Our Time, a new initiative created this year by Sarasota Opera, in conjunction with six other opera houses across the country—Santa Fe Opera, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Minnesota Opera, San Francisco Opera, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Seattle Opera. Officially formed this past June, the initiative has already commissioned two new family operas and invited submissions for a third in its first annual invitational.

Family opera—opera performed largely by adults but for whole families—has grown as a genre, and, although not exactly like youth opera, the overlap is immense. “This is a joining of those two genres,” explains Sarasota Opera Director of Education Ben Jewell-Plocher of the new initiative, “and looking for composers who want to write works that be done in either medium.” And for those librettists and composers whose work is selected, not only will the new opera premiere at one of the member opera houses, but the project will be shepherded from page to stage with workshops and mentorship from opera veterans. In return, the member companies of Opera for All Voices not only receive new shows to bring in audiences, but stories relevant to the issues of the time, perhaps doing a bit to wind back the impression of opera as a place for grand old tales of yesteryear. “We all want to increase our repertoire,” says Jewell-Plocher, “while telling stories which speak to young people.”

And it’s largely due to the hard work done at SYO that Sarasota Opera first caught the eye of Sante Fe Opera, which visited in 2012 to catch Little Nemo in Slumberland, and why they reached out last year and brought in Sarasota Opera to help plan the new initiative. “Santa Fe realized the power of what we do with our youth,” says Jewell-Plocher, and though other operas perhaps worked more directly with family opera as a genre, SYO served as a model for how to support and produce such a program for new and niche opera. The initiative has only just begun, but he has high hopes. “Hopefully, this becomes part of the world of commissioning works,” says Jewell-Plocher. “For it to have the longevity to be one of these things that professors talk about with their students, and that their students can aspire to in their careers.”