Foxy business on the road

Twenty years after his death, Roald Dahl is enjoying blockbuster success with recent film adaptations of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr Fox. In the past couple of years Matilda, The BFG and George’s Marvellous Medicine have all been adapted for the theatre. Maybe directors are finally realising the dramatic potential of Dahl’s stories, or maybe it’s just that the generation who grew up reading them in the 1970s and 1980s is now having children of their own.

Latest to hit the UK stage is an operatic interpretation of Fantastic Mr Fox by US composer Tobias Picker. In truth, it’s over a decade since it premiered at Los Angeles Opera but the work is enjoying a renaissance: last summer an abridged, open air production played at Opera Holland Park and now a full-length orchestral version is about to receive its UK premiere with English Touring Opera. This latest production is tied to an ambitious education scheme that involves a different chorus of children and fox cub roles at each of the 10 scheduled venues round the country.

Part of the opera’s appeal lies in its adaptability: “There are three full-length versions,” Picker explains, “then I made this one for small orchestra, then a seven-instrument version, and then an abridged seven-instrument version for Holland Park.”

Throughout his early career in the 1980s Picker was regarded primarily as an orchestral composer and best known for his tone poem “Old and Lost Rivers”. In 1996, however, his first opera, an adaptation of Judith Rossner’s novel Emmeline, premiered at Santa Fe Opera to great acclaim and soon afterwards Donald Sturrock, artistic director of the Roald Dahl Foundation, and Dahl’s widow, Liccy, approached him with their idea for Fantastic Mr Fox.

“Donald had already written the libretto so I said ‘Send it to me’,” Picker explains. “I didn’t expect much because usually unsolicited things are amateur but this was brilliant and I fell in love with it.”

Already familiar with Dahl’s short stories, Picker quickly saw musical promise in the knockabout tale of foxes tricking a trio of nasty farmers. And having agreed to the project he was invited to Great Missenden, the village in Buckinghamshire where Dahl lived, to “soak up local colour and see where the fox that inspired him to write the book used to gambol”.

Throughout history, few children’s operas have entered the popular repertoire; young audiences seem to present challenges of their own. For Fantastic Mr Fox, Picker blended a range of musical influences – a foxtrot, inevitably, hints of jazz and a strong percussion element – into his own style. Above all, he sought to engage a wide range of ages. “It’s not a children’s opera, it’s a family opera,” he says.

“There are many dark things that the kids can get but then there are darker things still that only the adults can get. I was keen to explore all the different layers of meaning.”

Many of Dahl’s adult stories, and indeed elements of his children’s fiction (just think of Bruce Bogtrotter, Veruca Salt and Willy Wonka), display a dark, at times grotesque, sense of humour. And certainly his love of rhythm, word play and onomatopoeia is a gift to any librettist. In Fantastic Mr Fox there is even an in-built chorus about the farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Sturrock’s libretto preserves Dahl’s wit, while adding an element of dramatic humour: one of the stage directions requires Bunce to goose-step up and down while rhapsodising about the pleasures of goose meat.

Far from being hamstrung by the book, Sturrock used it as springboard for new ideas, introducing a handful of new characters and narrative threads. As well as the original cast of foxes we have Miss Hedgehog, a spin(e)ster who falls for a Mr Porcupine, a pair of malevolent machines, Mavis the Tractor and Agnes the Digger, and a rat named Rita. “Donald had originally envisaged Rita as a sort of ageing hippy,” Picker says, “but I added more layers than that and I made her Jewish by giving her klezmer music.”

And – a first for Dahl – there’s the introduction of a gay subtext. “So there’s a suggestion of romantic interest between Badger and Mole, and then the other same-sex couple are Mavis and Agnes, who happen to be lesbian farm equipment,” Picker explains with delight. “I think it’s in keeping with updating Dahl’s sensibility.”

According to Tim Yealland, director of the ETO production, contemporary relevance was important. “There’s an element of time travel for us but we’ve gone for a world that young people can read as being now rather than a Roald Dahl past.” Unlike the original production, which featured stunning but very stylised costumes and sets based on designs by Gerald Scarfe, the ETO production focuses more on character. Yealland says his Mr Fox is “a sort of raffish, rakish, Russell Brand type” and describes the “luscious” coat of spines worn by Miss Hedgehog.

Picker has enjoyed increasing exposure this side of the Atlantic. A new dance work entitled Awakenings, commissioned by Ballet Rambert, is touring the UK and there are plans for Fantastic Mr Fox to become an annual fixture at Holland Park. Picker is also hopeful that the opera will receive its German premiere in the near future, and says that a number of US companies are interested.

As artistic director of a new opera company to be based at the $200m performing arts centre being built in San Antonio, Texas, he admits that Fantastic Mr Fox is likely to feature there too. The opera house is not due to open to the public until 2013 but he has already given the programming some thought.

“You know the Fox News slogan, Fair and Balanced? Well my programme will be fair and balanced,” he laughs. “I’ll have to be careful not to over-programme myself. I want to do American premieres but it won’t be exclusively new work – my favourite composer is Puccini – and it will be designed to offer a balanced diet.”

‘Fantastic Mr Fox’, Hackney Empire, London, on March 10 and tours the UK until May 26

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