The estate of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is notoriously protective of the French writer and pilot’s 1943 book The Little Prince. “Their answer is basically no to everything,” says Jim Keller, publisher of the adaptation that arrives at New York City Opera in November. “They said, Put on a show, and if we like it, you can do it, and if we don’t, you can’t.” Only after the production premiered in Houston in 2003 was permission granted—and even then with the stipulation that the work not be performed in London or New York. (Both the composer, Rachel Portman, and the librettist, Nicholas Wright, live in London.) It took time—and, rumor has it, a competing production’s failure to get airborne—for the estate to allow a New York premiere.
Though ostensibly for children, The Little Prince is a deeply philosophical, poignant book, about a pilot trying to fix his downed plane in the Sahara and a mysterious boy from the planet Asteroid B-612 who shows up and regales him with stories about his colorful interplanetary travels. Then the Little Prince disappears, going “back to his planet” by way of a snakebite (which adults understand to mean his death). “There’s a real sense of sadness and loneliness running through it,” Rachel Portman says. “It comes off the page. I wanted to communicate that very book through music.”
It’s her first opera, but one of Portman’s earliest commissions was for Jim Henson’s “The Storyteller” series, and, she says, she loved writing for kids. She went on to win an Oscar for her score to Emma, but she felt compelled to work on an opera that her three daughters could appreciate. A call from Keller, followed by a trip to the Sahara for inspiration, and she was onboard. Her score is melodic and simple—too simple, some critics say, suggesting that it belongs on Broadway. That attitude irks director Francesca Zambello (who’s also doing Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy at the Met this fall). “In my heart, I’m a populist,” she says, “and a film composer has a much wider reach. A lot of new works are being written for an intellectual minority.”
Will it play in Paris? The French are, of course, obsessed with the book (author and prince appeared, for a time, on the 50-franc note), and Portman says there’s “a lot of talk” about staging The Little Prince in France. When I ask whether she’ll replace the libretto with a French translation, her answer comes quickly. “Can you imagine if we didn’t? They’d be really upset. It’d be awful!”