By Steven J. Smith
Composer/librettist Rachel J. Peters, whose opera Rootabaga Country will enjoy its world premiere at Sarasota Youth Opera in November, said the project was the result of a happy accident.
“I was trying to get the rights to another story and the timing didn’t work out,” Peters said. “I then remembered I had a great appreciation for Carl Sandburg’s work, so I started searching for a story and his book Rootabaga Stories came up. I was not familiar with it, but I fell in love with it right away.”
Peters responded to Sarasota Opera’s request for submissions, which went out in March of 2015. Composer candidates’ operas had to have a libretto in English, run approximately 60 minutes and include 10-15 solo youth roles, sung with minimal spoken dialogue and backed by a chamber orchestra of up to 13 instruments. Of the 13 submissions received, Peters’ got the nod, according to Director of Education Ben Jewell-Plocher.
“Rachel’s approach involved a sense of whimsy,” Jewell-Plocher said. “That’s something that appeals both to the youth and family audiences. And she took a piece of literature that’s rooted in the American lexicon. Carl Sandburg is one of our most prolific poets and authors and someone we don’t talk about as much as we should these days.”
In Rootabaga Country, Peters focuses on three characters—Gimme the Ax and his two children, Please Gimme and Ax Me No Questions. They have sold their possessions and set off for Rootabaga Country, a land in the sky. This trek is the family’s way of connecting with Alelia, the children’s mother, who loved to visit Rootabaga Country as a young girl and disappeared when they were small. The journey provides Alelia’s children a connection to the mother they never knew and by the end of the story, the realization that families come in a variety of forms.
“My job was finding the aspects of the story that were the most colorful and theatrical,” Peters said. “The stories I chose were zany and fun, off the wall and goofy. It’s a really funny opera and if you like to laugh a lot, this is a good one to come to with a heartwarming message at the end.”
She added the Sarasota Opera creative team was very helpful in bringing Rootabaga Country to fruition. “They have a very specific mission and specific things they want the children in the Youth Opera to learn—a positive message and a positive experience,” Peters said. “And they were very instrumental in bending the story to that.”
Jewell-Plocher added Peters’ score provided an achievable challenge for the cast.
“That’s important for us,” he said. “For the audience, you’re going to be taken on a journey that’s crazy, but has a poignant point that families come in all shapes and sizes and it’s ok to be in a family that has only one parent. It’s all about diversity and acceptance.”
Peters added she didn’t feel she was writing a political piece when she started out, but noticed by the time it was completed that it resonated with a lot of the current political climate.
“Right now it’s very important to safeguard the notion that anybody can be your family,” she said. “It can be an unofficial family. It can be extended relatives. It can look like anything.”
Jewell-Plocher added Sarasota Opera holds this production up to the same standards as the rest of the operas in its season.
“The only difference is the majority of the cast is between the ages of 8 and 18,” he said. “I want our audience to see what these kids can achieve when they’re held to a high standard.”
The Sarasota Youth Opera has been in existence since 1984 and has given thousands of young people an opportunity to experience opera firsthand through participation in after-school choruses, Sarasota Opera mainstage performances, an annual three-week opera summer camp and fully staged Youth Opera productions.
Rootabaga Country will have two performances, at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 11 and and 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 12. Tickets cost $15 for students, $30 for adults and $55 for family packs, which includes two adults and up to four students. The Sarasota Opera House is located at 61 North Pineapple Avenue. For more information, call the box office at (941) 328-1300 or visit www.sarasotaopera.org. You can also visit the Youth Opera Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/SYOpera.