There was something poetic, as well as tragic, about the death of French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Just like the hero of his most famous book, “Le petit prince,” he disappeared without a trace, after taking off from Corsica on a World War II reconnaissance flight over the Mediterranean.
“Le petit prince” itself has never disappeared. It’s been translated into more than 200 languages. It’s been turned into a Lerner & Loewe film musical, a Japanese “anime” series, several theater pieces, and at least four operas. In 2005, Boston Lyric Opera staged Rachel Portman’s “The Little Prince.” Next month, the PALS Children’s Chorus will bring the American premiere of Gerald Wirth’s “The Journey of the Little Prince” to Chestnut Hill. This one is a children’s opera that could see, at the end, some 150 PALS students, ages 6 to 14, sharing Pine Manor College’s Ellsworth Theatre stage.
The route of “The Journey of the Little Prince” to Boston has been almost as circuitous as that of PALS’s new artistic director, Andy Icochea Icochea. Wirth composed his one-hour opera in 1995, when he was artistic director of the Calgary Boys’ Choir. Icochea Icochea grew up in Lima, Peru, and came to the United States to attend Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J. The two men converged in Vienna, where Wirth, a former member of the Vienna Boys’ Choir, returned from Calgary to become artistic director of the the Choir in 2001, and Icochea Icochea secured a post as one of the organization’s four choir masters in 2005.
Icochea Icochea held that position, he explains when we meet at the PALS office in Brookline Village, through 2010. Then, with the oldest of his two daughters ready to enter elementary school, he and his wife decided to return to the US. He was drawn to PALS, he says, by the happy faces of the children he saw on the organization’s website.
The PALS children are no strangers to opera. In the 2010-11 season, they appeared in Boston Lyric Opera’s productions of Puccini’s “Tosca” and Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and in the Boston Early Music Festival’s presentation of Agostino Steffani’s “Niobe.” This summer, they’ll join the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood for Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust.”
But they’ll have “The Journey of the Little Prince” all to themselves. “Wirth’s conception,” says Icochea Icochea, “was that of an opera with children, played by children, for an audience that would include children.” He says that the English-language libretto, by Canadian Kirk Miles, sticks very close to Saint-Exupéry’s text, in which the narrator, a pilot whose plane has made an emergency landing in the Sahara, comes upon the little prince, who is worried about his own far-off asteroid planet and the rose he’s left there.
But what about the music? “I would say that it sounds modern,” Icochea Icochea allows. “It uses some of the techniques of the 20th century in terms of composition. The little prince himself sings a set of tones in which the minor-third interval is often present. When the environment is being created for the appearance of the little prince, there is on almost every occasion the use of twelve-tone technique in the accompaniment. And that’s very interesting, because you hear it, and it’s kind of moving, kind of ethereal, and still it doesn’t sound foreign to your ear.”
PALS executive director Jill Carrier interjects that parts of the opera “are very funny. It’s got a lot of humor in it. It’s musically very interesting, not in an erudite way, but in a way that will be very accessible to children and adults alike.”
The orchestra, as envisioned by the composer, will consist of one piano and one keyboard plus three percussionists and solo instruments ad libitum. Icochea Icochea says that they haven’t yet decided on the solo instruments but adds that PALS students could be part of the orchestra: “We actually have very good instrumentalists in our ensemble.”
The children will also portray most of the scenery. Icochea Icochea recalls a production in Graz, Austria, where the stage was black and the characters provided all the color. “We’re going to go in that direction, very austere, and let the children be the ones telling the story.”
“From the point of view of the larger musical community,” Carrier says, “I think it’s going to be pretty amazing what can be done with children — this form of art, the level of singing, and the difficulty of some of the music. It’s going to be something that we hope will inspire people to think kids can engage in this kind of art. And it will be a wonderful thing for children to see other children performing at a very high level of artistry.”
Icochea Icochea concludes, “The composer feels, very strongly, that the main message of the book, and his opera, is in the phrase ‘It’s only with the heart that one can see rightly.’ And we’re going to hope that the audience will join in singing that phrase at the end of the opera, in the finale.”Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.