Published in 1943, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's beloved book The Little Prince is now an opera as well. With a score by Academy Award winning composer Rachel Portman (she won an Oscar for Emma, and was nominated for Chocolat and Cider House Rules) and libretto by Nicholas Wright (author of Vincent In Brixton), the story is a fable about a pilot who crashes in the Sahara desert. Saint-Exupéry was a pilot who flew reconnaissance missions during WWII, and was shot down over the Mediterranean in July 1944. The pilot in the book is Saint-Exupéry himself; the little prince is the author as a boy.
In the book, the pilot is stranded in the desert where he meets a little prince from a far-away star, Asteroid B-612. The prince teaches the pilot some fundamental truths about life: how to see from the heart, since everything that is essential is invisible to the eye. The prince is on a planet-to-planet journey seeking wisdom and information on how to care for the single rose that grows on his planet. As the story unfolds, the prince tells the pilot the story of his travels, and about those he met along the way, including a king, a businessman, a lamplighter, a fox who teaches him about love, and a fearsome snake that eventually helps him return home.
Directed by Francesca Zambello, the world premiere of The Little Prince took place at the Houston Grand Opera in May 2003. The production features the final sets and costumes designed by the late Maria Bjornson, winner of numerous honors, including two Tony Awards in 1988 for her set and costume designs of Phantom of the Opera. Bjornson passed away unexpectedly last December at the age of 53.
Born on February 16, 1949 in Paris, France, Bjornson grew up in Paris with her mother, and did not know her Norwegian father until she was an adult. She studied at the Central School of Art and Design in London, and began her career working with director Philip Prowse at the Glasgow Citizens theatre in Scotland, where she designed 13 productions. In 1972, she began a long-term collaboration with director David Pountney, designing numerous opera productions throughout the 70s and 80s, many for the English National Opera. She also worked at the RSC, Covent Garden, the Almeida Theatre, and the Glyndebourne and Wexford opera festivals.
After memorializing her native Paris in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom Of The Opera in 1986, Bjornson also designed his Aspects Of Love and Mike Ockrent's revival of Sondheim's Follies in 1987. Her work was acclaimed both critically and by her peers, and she was remembered at a star-studded gala, To Maria With Love, held last March on the stage of the Her Majesty's Theatre in London, home of Phantom of the Opera. The Little Prince was one of the numerous productions she was working on at the time of her death.
“The sets are like watercolors, based on the drawings in the book,” says London-based designer Adrian Linford, who served as set realizer for the Houston production. “I was involved with this project from the beginning, and had known Maria for a long time, ever since Phantom Of The Opera. I was also working with her on the sets for Les Troyens at The Metropolitan Opera (which also opened after Maria's death). I'd met everyone and Francesca asked me to carry on Maria's work. It was an honor to do so.”
Linford collaborated with UK costume designer Sue Wilmington, who took over as costume realizer for the opera. “She knew Maria even longer than I did,” notes Linford, who was able to go back and forth between The Metropolitan Opera in New York for Les Troyens and Chicago where the sets for The Little Prince were built, to ensure that Bjornson's designs were executed correctly. The costumes, also based on Saint-Exupéry's drawings in the book, include incredibly clever roses with pink tulle for petals and green tights for stems, and a snake with a green lamé jacket whose tail drapes across the entire stage.
To evoke the Sahara Desert, the set consists of undulating sand dunes, with a large blue plane in the first act, and a smaller blue plane upstage in Act Two, as if the action is taking place further from the crash site. The paint on the plane is applied in layers, with some of it rubbed off, than another layer applied. “There are four layers of paint on the plane,” Linford confirms. “The painting is mannered to make it look quite subtle.” A combination of effects machines, including an MDG Atmosphere, a High End F1000, and a Le Maitre G3000 are used for the reveal of the plane at the top of Act One, to make it look as if the plane is crashing into the sand.
There is also a round portal, or false proscenium, to represent the world. This is a metal frame with wooden steps along the inner edges. When closed, the portal serves as a frame for act curtains that are maps of the world as seen from the plane. For Act One, the drop shows a small blue plane somewhere over Africa, and letters swirling to the ground. This is the view the pilot would have seen as his plane went spiraling down and the mail he was carrying went flying out of the plane. For Act II, there is just the world, or the view the little prince would have seen when he heads toward earth.
When the portal moves apart at the top of each act, it frames the action as well. Singers appear in windows in the sides of the portal and in the sand dunes, and they also use the steps in the portals as perches. A good example of this is the lamplighter scene, in which a lamppost appears stage right at the top of the portal, with the lamplighter perched on it. The children's chorus appears, carrying small lamps on poles, as the lamplighter explains his life to the little prince.
The surfaces of the set are carpeted, in yellow to evoke the sands of the desert, with a tighter loop on the horizontal surfaces, and a looser, longer shag weave on the vertical ones. “We wanted something the children in the chorus could run on,” says Linford, who did a lot of detail work as the sets were completed. The desert scenes represent the pilot's point of view, a desolate desert landscape where he is running out of water, while the scenes that take place in and around the portal tell the story from the prince's point of view as he discovers a world of his own.
The lighting by American LD Rick Fisher, who lives in London, dapples the dunes with sunshine or paler evening light. There is one very big lighting “moment,” when there is no singing, just a four minute musical interlude as the pilot and the little prince turn their backs to the audience to watch a sunset, and the upstage cyc explodes with color. “The translucent muslin cyc is a painted blue sky with a heat haze of clouds on the horizon,” says Fisher, who used banks of lights at the top and bottom of the cyc, with three sets of three colors for front light.
The lights at the top of the cyc were Mole Richardson 1,500W three cell far cycs with GAM 915 (Twilight), Rosco 64 (Light Steel Blue), and Lee 764 (Sun Colour Straw). At the bottom, the lights were Berkey Colortran nine cell, three-circuit T3s with Lee 722 (Bray Blue), Lee 201 (Full C.T. Blue), and Rosco 94 (Kelly Green), and Strand Pallas1K groundrow cells with Lee 68 (Sky Blue), Lee 363 (Special Medium Blue), and Lee 135 (Deep Golden Amber). “It was magic when the sky turned dark blue and purple,” says Fisher.
“It's very old-fashioned. There is no bounce, it's just simply front lit. With bounce you saw too much of the fabric of the cyc, and were more aware of the material than the sky. There was too much texture,” says Fisher. In the book, the prince watches the sun set 27 times. “In talking with the composer, we finally decided to have four sunrise/sunset cycles. There is not really a “day” in between,” he explains.
“I wanted to bring in moving lights to help create the sunsets, but there was no budget for another console and another operator. I think they had an eye toward touring later.” Fisher notes that most European opera houses, such as Covent Garden, have automated lights integrated into their house rigs. “The US seems to be lagging behind,” he says. “Automated fixtures help facilitate changeovers.” That would have been useful in this case, where the stage had to be cleared for other events several times during the run. Fisher also used six Strand 12” 5kW Fresnels with Wybron Coloram scrollers (rented from Fourth Phase in New York) for use as large-format color washes.
The show is run on the in-house Obsession 3000 console. The Houston Grand Opera's resident LD Christopher Sprague served as Fisher's assistant. The remainder of the house rig is mainly ETC Source Fours of various sizes, hung both overhead and on the balcony rail; 40 of which have Coloram II scrollers. There are also Strand 8” Fresnels overhead.
“The designs keep the essence of a story being told, and maintain the whimsical atmosphere of the book,” says Fisher. “The skill for Bjornson came in creating three-dimensional sets from 2D drawings. We missed her brilliance and how she would have pushed us.” In the end, Bjornson's brilliance shines through, and like the little prince himself, she has left us with a lot to think about.