Washington National Opera has made a small piece of history with the world premier of The Lion, The Unicorn, and Me, a work commissioned by WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello, who also directs. This is their first production ever to feature the work of a female composer, Jeanine Tesori, a multiple Tony Award nominee for her scores for Thoroughly Modern Millie, Caroline, or Change, and Shrek the Musical. She teamed up with librettist J.D. “Sandy” McClatchy, whose day job is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated poet. It’s a sweet story of the donkey in the Nativity Story based on the children’s book by renowned British author Jeanette Winterson, who was in the audience for the premiere.
The libretto is clearly written by a poet with its clever rhymes and intricate lyrics that rely intimately on the evocative music from its first trumpeted fanfare. The story involves an angel tasked with choosing the beast that carries Mary to Bethlehem. The first act is filled with animals, each with their own instrument, motif, and aria to pitch to the angel why they should be the one for the job. Boy soprano, fifth grader Henry Wager (The Angel) certainly has the voice of an angel, plus a natural acting ability that anchors the first act. The first animal is the snake, and the “Snake Aria” is a jazzy, fun piece sung by a large children’s chorus auditioned from the local community. The snake is, nevertheless, rejected for his lack of legs. The adult cast plays the other animals, all dressed in truly outlandish costumes by Erik Teague, in addition to three and four and five other roles as innkeepers or weavers or pots throughout the opera. Almost the entire cast is making their Washington National Opera debut or are members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.
First up is a flamingo (Lisa Williamson), dressed in a pink corset and boa with a soaring soprano on “Flamingo’s Aria,” whose main argument is that, “I’m pink.” A hippo, an elk, and a cat (Ian McEuen, Norman Garrett, and Deborah Nansteel) follow with their own clever songs before the lion (Soloman Howard) takes the stage for “Lion’s Aria” that has the whole audience singing along to an African beat. Howard has a powerful bass that shakes the rafters of the intimate Terrace Theater and has charisma to spare as the king of the beasts, bare-chested with a gold suit and a mane of dreads.
The unicorn (Jacqueline Echols) takes the stage next for her ethereal “Unicorn’s Aria,” drenched in harps as the stage is drenched in sparkling light by Designer Mark McCullough. Finally, the donkey (John Orduña) arrives for the poignant and beautiful “Donkey’s Aria.” He is the heart of the opera and his soulful voice makes him the perfect humble hero. My heart just about melted as he closed with, “Heehaw, heehaw.” Mary (Catherine Martin) shares a duet with him at the end and sings the moving “My Only Son,” which is a wonderful take on the Christmas story.
The set by Michael Yeargan is simply an empty theater, which I found an odd choice, but it is transformed in act two into Bethlehem and a Bazaar for the ensemble song “Chop, Chop, Chop” which shows of Tesori’s Broadway roots with its complicated and varied singing parts and quick action scenes. All of the ensemble pieces are a delight, often filled with rounds or call and response and intricate pieces that make good use of the whole ensemble.
Conductor Kimberly Grigsby makes her debut with the Washington National Opera orchestra and was clearly enjoying her time thoroughly in the pit. The orchestra has a big job, especially in this score that gives solos to so many instruments.
Zambello has a goal to bring new operatic works to Washington, as well as more American works, but her vision goes further than that in her quest to transform the Christmas season for opera. Ballet has its Nutcracker; orchestras have Handel’s Messiah, and now opera has the donkey. This is the perfect medium for very important stories, and this is certainly a very important story, as the cast sings in the triumphant finale, “The smallest creatures can make the biggest difference.”
The Lion, The Unicorn, and MeIt would make for a lovely introduction to opera for kids. The songs are amusing and very relatable and the children outnumber the adults onstage, but has something for adults as well with its intricate score, clever libretto, talented performers, and its message about our universal longing to matter in this world, which is true whatever your age.
The Lion, The Unicorn, and Me is an instant holiday classic – moving and sweet with powerhouse talent behind it.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.
The Lion, The Unicorn, and Me plays through December 22, 2013 at The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.