A Trip to the Moon, a Melodrama for Children (2017)

scored for soprano, mezzo soprano, tenor, baritone, 6 speaking roles, adult chorus, children’s chorus, orchestra (33.3331.3perc.piano.strings)

duration 50 minutes

A Trip to the Moon is an opera with many forebears. It is a melodrama, both in the specific, historically-rooted sense of the word as it was used in the 18th and 19th centuries (to denote a stage work that combines spoken recitation with musical accompaniment), and in the more general, emotionally heightened and dramatically sensationalized sense that the word has accumulated since then.

A Trip to the Moon is also a retro-futurist sci-fi adventure opera, and it was inspired by three interrelated sources of 19th century science fiction. The first is Jules Verne’s 1865 novel De la terre à la lune (fun fact: Verne spent his bohemian youth working in a Parisian theater writing light libretti for his friends while birthing literary science fiction on the side). The second—from which I borrowed a few useful plot points—is the 1875 Offenbach operetta Le voyage dans la lune, a work that took the fastidious, scientifically-grounded Verne and launched it into the realms of fantasy and grand stage spectacle, adding royal romances, magical umbrellas, dancing snow flakes, and an erupting volcano to the moon journey. The third inspiration is the seminal 1902 silent film by Georges Méliès, also called Le voyage dans la lune. Drawing on elements from the Offenbach, the Verne, and other contemporaneous depictions of moon travel, Méliès created his own unique mélange of what were by then familiar moon tropes — the arguing astronomers, the smoking forge, the bullet-shaped rocket, the tribunal of mysterious moon people, and the hurried journey home.

In addition to being a melodrama and a sci-fi adventure opera, A Trip to the Moon is, more importantly, a community opera. There are roles in this piece for world-class professional musicians, and there are roles that require no musical training whatsoever, that literally anyone can sing (or whack, or whirl). It is a piece that is inherently flexible with regard to the size and skill set of its forces (the premiere in Berlin featured 200 volunteer singers and an orchestra made up of school children alongside members of the Philharmonic), and it is a piece that was conceived as an experience as much for the wide variety of people making it as for the audience watching it. In this sense it can trace its lineage through works like Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde and Bertold Brecht’s Lehrstücke all the way back to the morality and mystery plays of late medieval Europe. Like A Trip to the Moon, these works were allegorical, archetypal, participatory, and ritualistic in nature, to be made by a community for a community.

But aside from all those historical antecedents, A Trip to the Moon is first and foremost a children’s opera, to be performed by and for children. And while I’m thrilled to get to share it with adult audiences, I feel that the piece is not truly at home until it is presented for a crowd that contains, at least in part, the young (and the young at heart).

A special thanks goes to Simon Rattle, who commissioned A Trip to the Moon as part of the community outreach initiatives of the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony, to Opera Philadelphia, who gave me a deep dive into the practicalities of opera-making in the twenty-first century, and to the many gifted and generous storytellers who helped guide and shape my ideas for the work: Royce Vavrek, Mark Campbell, Ela Baumann, Yuval Sharon, Alexander Birkhold, and Brian Selznick.

Pictures, from the amazing design team at PXT Studio, can be seen here.