The memory has dimmed somewhat in the past few years. But it remains firmly entrenched in my mind. I wish I could say that this moment was a formative one in my development as musicologist; that destiny took hold of this young boy and led him to the path of his eventual vocation. But no such thing happened.

Oliver Knussen © Maurice Foxall
Oliver Knussen
© Maurice Foxall

My first experience listening to opera was when I was eight years old, when my third-grade class was sent one bright morning to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. We were told we were going to see a performance of an operatic version of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. I don’t remember too much of the music back then, though I remember thinking it not sounding the way I had imagined. My main concern that day was that my mother forgot to pack a drink with my lunch. But I do remember very well what happened when we came back to school in the early afternoon. Our teacher asked each one of us what we thought of the opera. When she got to me, my reply was brutally terse. “It was stupid,” I said.

Some twenty years after the fact, I had a chance to see the work again, this time in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s staging at Disney Hall under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel.

Oliver Knussen’s Where the Wild Things Are, despite its subject, is not a work for children. It is an adult reverie on childhood and innocence; on a child’s frustration of the adult world that belittles him and pays him no heed. Musically it inhabits a world closer to Birtwistle and Roberto Gerhard than Sesame Street. The sophistication of the music would elude the grasp of your typical child unaccustomed to classical music. This is sly music; rich in allusions and in-jokes. The mock pomposity of Max’s coronation by the Wild Things is capped by a tongue-in-cheek quotation from the coronation scene from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Elsewhere slivers of music by Britten and Ravel glide by; flickering for a moment in the light before receding back into the score.

The opera itself isn’t so much an opera as it is a kind of extended dramatic monologue with occasional interjections from other voices. Holding up the narrative single-handedly is the character of Max (sung with bratty impishness by Claire Booth). Sendak chucks his character into a dense brew of anger and neuroticism, made all the more vivid by Knussen’s equally wild and often astringent score.

Netia Jones’ staging, cleverly using live action and digital animation, heightened the duality between the real and unreal; dream and action. It also gave the quality of having brought Sendak’s book to life in that the way the characters interacted with the giant projections behind the orchestra. One felt as if seated in front of a monstrously large copy of the Sendak book; the Wild Things peering behind its pages, opening the book and stomping about. The feeling was not unlike that of sitting before a grown-up and listening to them as they read aloud.

That storybook sensation was explicitly recalled in the work that opened the program, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. Jones projected onto the stage a living storybook, with the different characters from the Mother Goose stories interacting with projections of live actors.

Performing the composer’s expanded version of the work, the orchestra led by Dudamel elicited from the score pliant expressivity and graceful refinement. The tenderness at the music’s heart was laid bare with a tender, rapt interpretation of the closing “The Fairy Garden”.

Sharing both subject matter and similar treatment, Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges would have been a better partner to the Knussen opera. Both also end abruptly and in similar fashion: in the Ravel when the child sees his mother again; in the Knussen when Max discovers the hot dinner his mother prepared for him.

It was, nevertheless, a delightful program. Not for the kiddies. But what a treat for the grown-ups.