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Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014

A Cast of Hundreds and a Plethora of Puppets

Milwaukee Opera Theatre and the Peck School present Ravel’s ‘L’enfant et les

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An angry child throws a tantrum and demolishes his room. Magically, his broken possessions come to life and castigate him for the way he’s treated them. He flees to the back yard where the trees, insects and small animals he’s mistreated in the past shun or threaten him. At last he comes to the aid of a wounded squirrel. His opponents acknowledge his better side and call his mama to comfort him.

So goes the story of L’enfant et les Sortileges, a 50-minute opera by Maurice Ravel and the novelist Colette. George Balanchine choreographed the 1925 premiere. It’s Colette’s only libretto and Ravel’s colorful score is much admired, but the work is rarely staged. Structured in episodes that continually introduce new characters, it requires a string of soloists and a large ensemble. Add the costumes and sets needed to realize the work’s surrealism and this less-than-full-length evening looks prohibitively expensive.

Milwaukee Opera Theatre (MOT), in its first collaboration with choreographer and puppet designer Edward Winslow and the UW-Milwaukee Peck School of the Arts, is building the entire show from trash; or, to be exact, from materials intercepted on their way to the recycling bin. The production will showcase approximately 100 students from three university departments: opera, dance and orchestra. The UWM Symphony Orchestra under conductor Jun Kim will accompany the opera, a first for UWM. The show has four choreographers (two from the dance faculty), four professional singers, four professional dancers and a plethora of puppets by Winslow who co-conceived the production with MOT’s Artistic Director Jill Anna Ponasik and is one of the performers.

L’enfant et les Sortileges is by far the biggest production in MOT history. The company and its hardworking artistic director have generated much good will for well-produced, often locally commissioned premieres and groundbreaking collaborations with adventurous local artists including Danceworks Performance Company, Present Music and Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra. From 26, a cracked music-dance narrative created in 2010 from an opera singer’s primer, through Jason Powell’s superhero operetta Fortuna the Time Bender vs. The Schoolgirls of Doom (to be revived in May) and Leonard Bernstein’s glorious Candide staged in college classrooms, to the pop-opera mash-up of Guns n’ Rosenkavalier at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and The Eurydice Festival that filled two buildings at Carroll University with sophisticated new opera and dance in January, this company’s work has been remarkable.

The tantrum that opens L’enfant, the transformation of the child’s familiar world into a nightmare and the unexpected burst of compassion that redeems him, is thought to reflect the circumstances of the work’s creation. It was in 1915 that Colette, with her avant garde credentials and scandalous reputation for bisexual love affairs, was commissioned by the Paris Opera to devise a ballet to compete with Sergei Diaghilev’s sensational Ballet Russes. Once teamed with Ravel, whom she claimed to admire for his personal vulnerability, the work became an opera, a “lyric fantasy in two acts,” but the creative process was derailed by World War I in which Ravel was sent to fight at the front.

When Ponasik approached Winslow with her idea to build the production from no-cost recyclables, the puppet designer imagined a way to justify making the magical antagonists—les sortileges—from paper, cardboard and plastic throwaways. What, he asked, if the boy’s tantrum is provoked by the family’s decision to move to a new house? His room would be filled with packing materials soon to be used by movers to destroy the only existence he’s known.

Ponasik agreed. The story starts with the ensemble arriving on stage as what she calls “the worst moving company ever.” Seeing them, the boy goes crazy. The movers join the craziness, animating boxes, bubble wrap and garbage bags in an infantile rage until the full fantasy takes hold.

I had the pleasure of attending a rehearsal where I saw a giant moth made of packing paper, fishing poles, plastic plates and pizza boxes. I saw a human-sized teacup of wood glue and torn magazines; frogs made from wine boxes; dragon flies from plastic yogurt spoons and bicycle helmets; and a squirrel’s tail of garbage bags brought to life by an electric fan.

The singers have worked since September with Music Director Kerry Hart Bieneman. They sounded very good and the music is thrilling. Ponasik, Winslow and choreographer Joelle Worm gave the chorus detailed movements to perform while they sang, bar by complicated bar. It seemed impossible to execute but soon they pulled it off to giddy effect. Soprano Allison Hull of MOT sang and acted the role of the child with consistent brilliance, a sympathetic frightened presence in an overwhelming world.

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14-15, at UWM’s Helene Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts, 2419 E. Kenwood Blvd. For tickets, call 414-229-4308 or visit milwaukeeoperatheatre.org.