The holiday season means more than time off and a New Year for most. Filled with nostalgia and tradition, it means transport, as though it were a time machine, from regular life to something special. And as a holiday opera, Houston Grand Opera’s The Little Prince expresses this special side of the season charmingly.

Andy Jones (The Little Prince) and Joshua Hopkins (Pilot) © Lynn Lane
Andy Jones (The Little Prince) and Joshua Hopkins (Pilot)
© Lynn Lane

A co-production of HGO, Skylight Opera Theatre, Tulsa Opera, Boston Lyric Opera and the Wang Center for the Performing Arts, The Little Prince first premiered in 2003. The opera is based on the fanciful French children’s book Le Petit Prince written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in 1946. Bradley Moore conducts composer Rachel Portman’s score with delicate skill, even though what she wrote sounds much less like an opera per say and more like a feel-good movie soundtrack.

A pilot crashes his plane in the Sahara desert and runs into a mysterious little boy with blond shaggy hair and a jumpsuit who claims he is from the planet B-612. The boy needs a sheep to keep the baobab trees on his planet at bay, particularly from a Rose the boy has come to care for deeply. The opera follows the boy from planet to planet, meeting all sorts of bright and strange characters on his quest.

At first, with no elves or Santas or red-and-green garlands, the opera seems to stand apart in the realm of holiday works. And unlike Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, in which the Three Kings stop by Amahl’s house on their journey to find the Messiah, The Little Prince doesn’t explicitly tie to any religious holiday. It comes a little closer to Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland, where two orphans run into a series of fairytale characters after their wicked uncle has betrayed them. But each of these operas features some nugget about humanity, a lesson that apparently we’ve forgotten about in the course of the year.

<i>The Little Prince</i> © Lynn Lane
The Little Prince
© Lynn Lane

I heard Andy Jones, a fifth-grader, in the role of The Little Prince (he shares the role with Cohle H. Smith for half the performances), whose high nimble voice only has room to grow. Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins was an ideal Pilot, a passionate grown-up who can recall, still, a sense of child-like wonder. His voice, a mix of chiseled timbre and steely vibrato, captured a feeling of confidence, even in the face of desperation later in the opera.

But there were a few sound issues that were unavoidable given the circumstances and at no fault of any singer. The outer set is a large, cutout circle that frames a scene within, and whenever any singer moved behind the circle, their voice was notably reduced. The Little Prince is also the only singer who has a microphone, and an electronically amplified voice and a naturally projecting voice will never see eye to eye.

Overall, though, this opera really gets the fantastical, otherworldly aesthetic. The set and costumes (designed by the late Maria Bjørnson), lit up by Michael James Clark’s deft handiwork as Lighting Realizer, are a journey in themselves through rich, unadulterated colors and designs – like those imagined by a child. The exception – and it’s a sad one – is the Rose, who wears mold-green stockings with pointy thorns protruding like unwanted growths. Her upper-body is encased in a bubble of red that folds down onto her hips. With moldy-green heels to match, it also brings an uncomfortable sexuality to the otherwise child-friendly stage.

Andy Jones (The Little Prince) and Pureum Jo (Rose) © Lynn Lane
Andy Jones (The Little Prince) and Pureum Jo (Rose)
© Lynn Lane

Korean soprano Pureum Jo manages the Rose role with a thick voice and heavy vibrato. She kicks around and makes the best of her unfortunate costume, but her voice is too dense to really pull off the delicate flower. Sofia Selowsky, a mezzo-soprano in the role of the fox, sings with more clarity and seems also to be having fun pawing and poking around the Sahara hills.

But the real star is buried in this production in ensembles until, in the final minutes, somebody was smart enough to give her the saving part of Water. Soprano D'Ana Lombard has a naturally rich voice – it never sounds like she’s working to project – that soars majestically from a window above the Little Prince and the Pilot just when they’ve almost given up hope. But, as her many ensemble pieces proved, she knows her voice well and can control it quickly to blend. It’s a skill not every soprano is willing to utilize.

A remarkable children’s chorus, directed by Karen Reeves, blesses the opera with that holiday purity we’re all looking for when we’re not thinking of Handel’s Messiah. If The Little Prince were not guarded by the category of “holiday,” perhaps some of what we see and hear here would be open to more critique. But as part of the season of Scrooges and Santas, it’s a refreshing reminder of sweet simplicity in a complicated world.