Tobias Picker On His Family Opera, 'Fantastic Mr. Fox'
Composer Tobias Picker has written three symphonies, eight concertos, and scores of works for solo piano, chamber musicians, and voice. But in his role as Artistic Director of Opera San Antonio, his focus is on the stage. For the opening of its inaugural season, Picker has selected one of his own works, and one designed to open the doors for all ages to an art form that engages the senses in unparalleled fashion. "Fantastic Mr. Fox" was Picker's second opera, written in 1998 for the Los Angeles Opera.
For its performance at the Tobin Center, September 23-28, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" will be performed with a full cast in its seven-instrument chamber orchestration in the intimate Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater.
Picker took a few moments to tell us about the themes of "Fantastic Mr. Fox," writing music for families, and what makes Roald Dahl's stories appealing to children.
Nathan Cone: What are you looking for dramatically when you are looking for material for an opera?
Tobias Picker: In the case of a family opera, like “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” it stands apart from my other four operas because it’s intended to be enjoyed by children and adults. I wouldn’t say my other four operas are the best things to take children to see! They’re a bit too upsetting and tragic (laughs). [“Fantastic Mr. Fox”] is playful, and it’s something that involves kids in the story, but also involves adults because it has two levels of humor. There are things that children aren’t going to find very funny and things that they’re not going to get at all, but the adults will get. I particularly like this libretto that Donald Sturrock created based on the book by Roald Dahl because it’s witty and funny and I hate to use such a cliche, but it’s fun for the whole family to enjoy. It’s not written down to children so it’s a chore for the parents to take them to. It’s also meant for adults.
"There is a thread that runs through all of my operas, including 'Fantastic Mr. Fox.' A philosophy of the everyman against the world."
The struggle to survive is a recurring theme in this opera. And certainly in my ‘grown-up’ operas [as well]. "Fantastic Mr. Fox" has the same themes as the grand operas that I’ve done, which are all tragic, but it’s a comedy. Because nobody dies (laughs)! The worst thing that happens [in the opera] is that Mr. Fox gets his tail shot off by Farmer Bean. The other animals all survive and live happily ever after.
That dual nature of appealing to parents and kids… I’ve read Roald Dahl’s work. Is that what drew you to Dahl as a source, because he has that ability to translate well for both parents and kids?
Yes, Dahl took children very seriously. He also realized that children are in many ways, more sophisticated than they’re given credit for, and that they need strong story lines and characters--and subversive characters, and also offbeat characters that are not timid. For instance, in Dahl’s story “Matilda” there are characters that are really very odd and strange and scary. Dahl liked scary elements for children, and children like that. So “Mr. Fox” the opera is based on the book, but there are characters that have been added to this story that are not in the book.
Musically, this opera has a ‘love duet,’ it has arias…it falls thematically into a tradition with your other works. But musically, is it different to write not only a comic opera, but an opera that you know is going to be seen and heard by a wide age range?
It shares with my other operas my approach — which is, that each character is defined by their own music, that tells us something about the character, and is a world that they inhabit. So in that way, “Mr. Fox” is no different than any of my other operas, because every character has their own recognizable harmonic world. There’s continuity between these worlds, but you know when you’re in Rita the Rat’s world, and you know when you’re in the world of Mrs. Fox, and the fox cubs, and you know when you’re in Mr. Fox’s world. These musical worlds overlap and intersect. I would say there’s a lot more playful writing for the characters [in “Mr. Fox”]. It has the largest cast of any of my operas. It’s a cast of 12, not counting the children’s chorus of trees, or various chickens and geese. I would say that the musical approach is more whimsical.
So what does Mr. Fox, the character, sound like to you?
The piece starts with a tune that is Mr. Fox’s theme song. And when he sings his first aria, you’ll hear it again, and you hear it at the end [of the opera]. Without getting technical about the harmonic structure of his music, it’s very much centered around “F” for fox. And it plays with tunes that include the note F. But I’m not a theorist, analyzing the piece after the fact—someone else can do that. His music is his character.
He’s very proud and sees himself as the king of the forest. And so it’s playful. He’s vain, [but] he’s also a family man. While he’s enjoying life and his freedom to roam the forest late at night foraging for food, it’s all for his family, Mrs. Fox, and his fox cubs. He provides for his family, but he’s also very pleased with himself as such. So when he gets his tail shot off by the farmers, he thinks his life is over, because his tail is his pride and joy. So he has a whole aria about how his life is ruined because his tail has been shot off. He becomes very depressed, and Mrs. Fox whips him into shape and says ‘that’s all nonsense. I married you, not your tail.’ One of the fox cubs offers to give him his tail, he says ‘you can have mine, dad, when it’s grown in.’ So they love him even without his tail, and he realizes he doesn’t need his tail to be the king of the forest.
You said you’re not a "theorist," but I’m curious—from a musical standpoint—how do you work? Where do you find the melodies and themes for your characters?
The characters find their own music. Music comes out of the characters' personalities and their situations, and it’s not something that’s imposed on them. I like to think it’s organic, and when I’m writing for one or another character, that I’m speaking through them, and the music is the language, so that to animate them and give them life, it’s a little like carving a figure out of marble. I think the music is already there for these characters because they’re so clearly defined from one another. I’m revealing them through a magical process that is impossible to explain (laughs).
I think I know what you mean…
I think with “Mr. Fox,” the opera brought out the child that is still within me. I was drawing subconsciously on early childhood musical experiences, which were as much with Brahms symphonies as they were with watching TV shows in the early sixties that were for children, or were so silly that children could grasp them even if they weren’t written specifically for children. There are things about “I Love Lucy” that are universal. You can be 60, 70 years old and still find it clever or amusing.
I was exposed to classical music on records, on the radio… I listened to everything, from Beethoven to Shostakovich and Stravinsky, but I also remember having a record of “Peter and the Wolf.” It was very popular when I was a kid. Everybody knew it, and it was played for us in school. The thing I’m getting at is that Prokofiev had different music for each animal, each character. That made an impression on me, and I still remember those tunes. I was not thinking about “Peter and the Wolf’ when I wrote "Fantastic Mr. Fox," but other people [say] it reminds them of “Peter and the Wolf” because it reminds them of it. I learned from Prokofiev that you can make music that really is portraying the characteristics of an animal. You can hear that influence in “Mr. Fox.” [My opera] goes beyond “Peter and the Wolf” in terms of structure, but there are similarities.
"Fantastic Mr. Fox" opens at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts on September 23, and plays through September 28. Tickets are available at the Tobin box office or online at this link.