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OPERA REVIEW : ‘Monkey See, Monkey Do’ Lets Children Taste Opera

Times Staff Writer

The opera audience was sitting on the floor and getting restless.

Just in time, there was a little tooting fanfare and Robert Xavier Rodriguez’s children’s opera “Monkey See, Monkey Do” began as part of the “La Jamaica” Mexican Folk Arts festival Sunday at Bowers Museum in Santa Ana.

Written for children from kindergarten to sixth grade, Rodriguez’s 25-minute work retells the folk story of a sombrero seller whose hats are stolen by a band of monkeys and how he cleverly manages to get them back and, incidentally, win the hand of his lady.

Mary Duren’s libretto blithely switches between English and Spanish, but even a non-bilingual adult was never at a loss for understanding the swift-but-simple plot.

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Commissioned in 1986 as a puppet drama for the Dallas Opera, “Monkey See, Monkey Do” was having its first performance outside of Dallas. It was also the first performance with on-stage singing actors, courtesy of the Overture Company, the community outreach--and training--arm of Costa Mesa-based Opera Pacific.

This adaptation, one surmised, necessitated certain compromises, such as a loss of charm and humor in contrasting operatic-sized voices emerging from the micro-world of marionettes. But director William Kirk kept the action moving fluidly, even hectically, on the small platform stage, and ignored the major contradiction of having humans try to coax the monkeys down from trees they were supposed to be in but that were simply not there.

This was clearly a budget production, with a simple hanging backdrop set and set-piece cactus grove. The monkey costumes--bright orange workers’ uniforms and masks--were particularly disappointing, however, and required a real stretch of the imagination.

Although the opera was originally scored for a chamber ensemble, accompaniment here was provided by a muddy, underpowered electronic keyboard played diligently by Stephen Sivcovich. Thus Rodriguez’s skills as an instrumental colorist and his capacity to establish a unique composer’s “voice” could not be sufficiently judged. Nevertheless, he emerged as a composer who can write deft, fluent and even memorable vocal lines and agilely shift from duets to trios to quintets to solos.

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The venue, a combination of lecture hall and art gallery, was not ideal for music. As best as could be judged, vocally the cast was mixed. Jennifer Bodenweber brought an ample, lush soprano and bright naivete to the role of Maria, beloved of the hat seller Pedrito. But as Pedrito, tenor Jim Rule sang with strain and dryness. Baritone Matthew Carey was the chalky-voiced, stalwartly acting organ grinder Antonio.

Nancy Bliss Estes and Mark Saltzman billed and cooed comically as the adult monkeys, and doubled as the bustling villagers. Four local children appeared as the silent monkey chorus.

The audience, estimated by a company official at approximately 400, was enthusiastic, with kids and some parents sitting on the floor between the stage and the first row of seats. But their excitement nearly foiled Rule’s efforts to portray the unsuccessful sombrero salesman, as the children eagerly shot their arms into the air when Pedrito dejectedly pleaded: “Doesn’t anyone want a sombrero today?” He did his best to ignore them.


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