HO: The Monkiest King / Principal and Youth Choruses and Soloists of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company; Teri Dunn, cond / Centrediscs CMCCD28020
We come once again to a new opera for children, this one written by Chinese-Canadian composer Alice Ping Yee Ho to a libretto by Marjorie Chan.
As I noted in my review of Poul Ruders’ children’s opera, The Thirteenth Child, writing such pieces is often a trap for composers. The trick is to create recognizable tunes, bouncy rhythms and a whimsical enough plotline that all appeal to children, and this is not at all an easy task. Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel, normally touted as the classic children’s opera, is really horribly written for its intended audience, which is basically the 5-to-9-year-old crowd. The story is right for them but, except for that one duet between Hansel and Gretel that sounds like a folk song, the music is much too sophisticated. It makes little kids squirm in their seats, as does Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, the “in” children’s Christmas opera of the 1950s and ‘60s. Peter Gelb of the Metropolitan Opera, who has made numerous and costly blunders over the years, actually hit upon a great idea when he stripped down Mozart’s The Magic Flute to one hour and sang it in English for the kids. They loved it. Just about the only other really good children’s opera I know of is Seymour Barab’s Little Red Riding Hood, which I also reviewed on this blog.
Ping Yee Ho’s opera is based on the story of the Monkey King, a popular figure in Chinese children’s literature. The Monkey King is a mischievous yet determined mythological being who rises from humble origin to become a great protector of humanity. Librettist Chan frames episodes from this story around a prologue and epilogue in which a young boy falls asleep after getting lost in a museum near a giant monkey and, presumably, dreams he becomes The Monkiest King. His mischievous antics almost lead to tragedy until he is redeemed and brought to see the error of his ways by Kwanyin, the goddess of mercy. What you cannot see in this recording is the dance sequence featuring dancer Xi Yi.
Although the music uses some modal scales and unusual harmonies, it is highly rhythmic, which kids love, and not too off-putting to matter. The melodic line is a cross between Western and Chinese music, the latter of which is extremely simple in construction. The band of instruments includes a flute, rattle and erhu (Chinese violin), and sounds like about 15 pieces at most. Unfortunately, the musicians are not identified. Happily, all of the solo singers have good diction, but when the children sing as a chorus their diction becomes muddied.
As in the case of Barab’s operas, the music is just sophisticated enough to appeal to all listeners while retaining interest for more sophisticated ears. Ying Pee Ho varies the rhythm in interesting ways, which keeps the listener engaged without alienating kids. There’s some nice rhythmic syncopation at the 6:20 mark in the Prologue, and the vocal line sometimes takes on a different rhythm from the accompaniment, as well as some nice cross-rhythms in the Cloud Chorus. Only the ending, in which the other children sing as the “Monkiest King” wakes up, is a bit of a downer, as we just hear soft laughter by the girls.
Otherwise, this is an excellent piece that works on two layers, and is really a good children’s opera!
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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