Sarasota Youth Opera Premieres "The Secret World of Og"



First they stole only little things—toys and comic books and the like—and nobody noticed. But when the Ogs kidnap the Pollywog, it falls to the remaining Berton children—Penny, Pamela, Patsy and Peter—and the intrepid family dog to descend into the subterranean world beneath their playhouse and rescue their baby brother. Adapted from the classic Canadian children’s book by author Pierre Berton, The Secret World of Og makes its United States premiere this Saturday at the Sarasota Opera House with newly written orchestral accompaniment from the original composer, Dean Burry. Presented by the Sarasota Youth Opera with music from the Sarasota Orchestra, Martha Collins directs the performance and Youth Opera Music Director Jesse Martins conducts.

First encountering the book when he was commissioned in 2000 to write a children’s opera, Burry opted instead to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which Sarasota Youth Opera has staged twice since, but something about Berton’s story stuck with him. Like The Hobbit, the colorful cast lent itself well to a children’s opera, but it wasn’t until Burry began raising his own family that he felt it’s full resonance, imagining Berton telling the tale to his own children, for whom the characters are named. It’s a fun and quirky story about little green men living underground, he says, but beneath it all an earnest and honest argument for integrity and self-worth. Children’s literature, like children’s opera, is not to be discounted.

“A lot of people underestimate what children are capable of emotionally and performance-wise,” says Burry. “Children’s opera is an art form in and of itself and adults cannot do what children do.” There is a difference between adult performers and child performers, but it’s a matter of different strengths and knowing how to emphasize those and write for those. Similarly, he says, rock songs given to a string quartet just doesn’t make sense, but that doesn’t mean there’s fault in either. In child performers, Burry sees an unadulterated sense of wonder and imagination that lends itself to what he says is essentially pretending. “There’s an authenticity that comes from young people,” he says. “There’s a connection to the roles that’s just magical and that you don’t find a lot with adult performers.” In Sarasota Youth Opera he finds kindred spirits: “It’s not just an educational project and it’s not just something for the kids to do—it really is full-scale opera.”

When speaking about the fresh orchestral score for the Sarasota production, Burry turns almost childlike himself, rattling through pirate songs and cowboy songs and spy songs—all realized with a fullness of sound impossible in the original score, written for only the piano. “Working with a piano duet you have to be creative,” he says, “but for the James Bond song, to have the right cymbals and the brass to really take you into that world is great.” Come Saturday, Burry hopes the audience will be open to the same energy and excitement he felt in its creation and that he sees in the young performers.

“As adults, we all need to reconnect better with that sense of wonder that we had as kids,” he says. “We grow up, we pay taxes, we get jaded and it’s oftentimes that jaded quality that stops us from living our lives.”

The Secret World of Og premieres this Saturday, November 12, at the Sarasota Opera House.

Pictured: The Berton children encounter a pirate Og. Photo courtesy of Sarasota Opera.

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