SALT LAKE CITY — A five-minute walk from his home in London’s Notting Hill district takes Nicholas Wright to an incredibly quiet room.
"It is absolutely the quietest room you've ever been in in your life," Wright recently told the Deseret News from his London home.
The room is on a busy road, but the double walls keep out the city noise. In that room is a grand piano, where Academy Award-winning composer Rachel Portman often sits and dreams up dramatic film scores like the ones for “Chocolat” and “The Cider House Rules.”
It’s in Portman’s home — especially in that secluded room — where Wright worked as a librettist with the film composer for several months creating the children’s opera “The Little Prince,” an adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s 1943 novella.
Houston Grand Opera premiered Portman and Wright’s “The Little Prince” in 2003, and now Utah Opera brings it to life for the first time — featuring its own costumes, sets and a chorus of more than 20 children from the Madeleine Choir School — at Capitol Theatre Jan. 19-27.
‘The book is all about children’
“The Little Prince” was Wright’s first attempt at writing an opera — he’s since written two others — but as a longtime playwright, he welcomed the challenge of creating a libretto.
During the creative process, Saint-Exupery’s book was his constant companion. Wright scoured the story looking for the dramatic moments — moments that could potentially translate into heartfelt arias. But because “The Little Prince” is still copyrighted, Wright couldn’t stray too far from the book. In fact, throughout the writing process, his work was closely monitored by a member of the Saint-Exupery estate.
“They have a responsibility to make sure that you don’t treat it too freely, that you’re reflecting the book as it actually is and not turning it into some different kind of property. So we all had to be quite faithful to the original,” he said. “A lot of the dialogue, the exchanges in the opera are just as was in the book, but then there are choruses and individual songs by the characters … which I wrote. But those again had to be very much in the spirit of the original book. We couldn’t just walk off with a copyrighted work and do what we wanted with it.”
But Wright was able to take some creative liberty. As he read the book, he didn’t just see words; he saw lines for a soprano to sing and picked out phrases that belonged to a baritone. And in the story’s twinkling stars — an ever-present theme — Wright found his opera chorus. In Utah Opera’s upcoming production, that chorus of twinkling stars is made up of more than 20 fifth- through eighth-graders — including 11-year-old Nitai Fluchel, who plays the lead role of the little prince — from the Madeleine Choir School.
“The book is all about children," Nitai said, "(and) how differently their minds work than the adults and how sometimes what their minds want to know is a lot more important than the grownups’ random ‘How old are you?’ questions. It’s definitely a great opera with a great message in it.”
‘Becoming as a little child’
Wright has fond memories of hearing Portman compose music to “The Little Prince” in her quiet room. But all these years after putting the opera together with Portman, it’s the message that has stuck with him the most.
“I do remember very strongly thinking that Saint-Exupery created a character who is kind of sad, disappointed (and) frustrated with his life. (The pilot is) in this sterile, lonely place, and I think (Saint-Exupery) is writing about the feeling of depression, the feeling that there's nothing growing around you, nothing rich around you. … And (the pilot is) thinking, ‘What is it that will help me here? What will bring me some life?’ It is himself — the child in himself renews him and brings him new life. That’s the story as I see it.
“It’s about becoming as a little child,” he continued. “You could say it’s a rather Christian message, actually. It’s how the pilot learns from this little child to become an adult.”
With childlike wonder at the heart of the opera, it’s fitting to have a boy soprano play the role of the little prince. It might seem risky for 11-year-old Nitai to carry that responsibility, but the fifth-grader, who recently traveled to Italy with the Madeleine Choir School to perform in the Vatican City, is ready. If there’s anything attending the school since kindergarten has prepared him for, it’s this big role.
“This is an amazing experience for me,” Nitai said. “I definitely wouldn't have done this without the Madeleine Choir School. … They've taught us everything we could know about music. … I realize how amazing it is that I have the opportunity to go to this school, and I love it.”
Wright won’t be here when Nitai takes the stage for Utah Opera’s premiere of “The Little Prince,” but based on what he witnessed almost 16 years ago at the Houston premiere, he has no doubt Utah operagoers are in for something special.
“When you see it all put together, you do think, ‘Good (heavens), this is a huge enterprise,’" he said. “It’s a beautiful gift to find the words you’ve written lifted into another — almost kind of heavenly — dimension.”
If you go …
What: Utah Opera's “The Little Prince”
When: Jan. 19 and 25, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 21 and 23, 7 p.m.; and Jan. 27, 2 p.m.
Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South
How much: $15-$112