In 2006 Don Christensen and I were perusing the ‘Philip Glass Recording Archive,’ the cornerstone on which Orange Mountain Music was built, and we came upon a 2CD/100 minute highly-produced recording of a children’s opera-ballet called “Le Streghe di Venezia” which neither of us had any knowledge.
I was particularly overwhelmed by this discovery of this piece. The opera was also revealed to be a commission from La Scala in Milan, the most prominent opera house in the world. Furthermore, upon auditioning the recording we found the piece to be musically wonderful – a playful delight full of wonder and comedy (Glass writing music for The Ogre is priceless!). How is it possible that no one had ever heard this piece outside of its limited run back in 1995?
“The Witches of Venice” was based on the children’s book of the same name by Italian artist Beni Montresor. The La Scala production was designed by Montresor and featured elaborate costumes and choreography. The reason for the highly produced recording, including sound effects, was that the original production was performed live to a recording. In other words, the recording was made expressly for the first production in Italy.
We began our research and found some photos of the production in the photo archive, the original Glass manuscript (essentially composed for the Philip Glass Ensemble instrumentation), the original Monstresor children’s book, and the original opera bill from La Scala. Undiscovered gems like these are what we live for. We immediately resolved to create a commercially available recording which embraced as much as possible the intentions of the authors.
Right away we found out was that Beni Montresor had passed away five years before in 2001. So we began to discuss the possibility of this project with his estate. Though with no direct information, I began to speculate that the creation of the premiere of the opera may have been challenging for Glass and Montresor. One insight I have noticed in the world of Philip Glass is that if certain projects are difficult, it sometimes seems like they are filed away in a different part of Glass’s mind regardless of the ultimate quality of the project itself. While we were discovering “Witches” to be a little treasure, I don’t think Glass had given the piece a second thought since the mid-1990s.
So more materials were unearthed and we began to think about the creation of an album. The first thing we considered was how the piece would be constructed. The sequence of tracks on the album does not correspond necessarily to the sequence that we found in the archive. The 100 minute recording did not really make sense sequentially and we did not have other materials to guide us. We also felt that the piece, at over 100 minutes, probably tested the patience of children (for whom it was intended).
Our starting point was Montresor’s book. We obtained permission to use the drawings and commenced a process of adapting and balancing the story in the book with the libretto by Montresor, and the actual music that Glass composed. As you would suspect, a large revision of the piece including re-sequencing, cutting, and adapting material significantly altered the dramaturgy of the whole piece. Glass was very supportive of our efforts to bring the opera to the public “anew” in this way and I thin the end result is a strong piece of theater.
Around the time we were doing this we were contacted by a fellow name Roberto Terribile from the Fondazione Aida in Italy. Terribile was invovled in a retrospective exhibition on Montresor and had interest in taking the OMM version of “Le Streghe” and producing it live on stage with additional dialogue by screenwriter Vincenzo Cerami (Life is Beautiful). The resulting production, specifically designed for children, was played across Italy including at the Auditorium in Rome in 2009.
The opera is very interesting in the Glass catalogue for a numer of reasons. As a composer for children I don’t think Glass pops into people’s minds very often. With that said, there is a very strong thread of playfulness in many of Glass’s pieces. His and Robert Moran’s opera “The Juniper Tree” is based on the story by the brothers Grimm is nominally for children (though in truth it might be a little too scary for children!), and his recent pieces ICARUS: At the Edge of Time and LIFE: A Journey Through Time have been very successful in the “family concert” format. Philip Glass loves children, having raised four of them himself (indeed two of his children are still quite young) and the composer embodies a playful childlike love of life which comes to the fore in his personality and many of his works despite his general penchant for big serious subjects like ‘social transformation through nonviolence’ (Satyagraha) and race relations in America (Appomattox).
In the end I don’t know what place these children’s pieces take in his overall output. But with this weekend’s announcement that “The Witches of Venice” will have its American premiere next summer in Saratoga, we were happy and validated by our efforts to trawl the depths of the Glass recording archive for “Le Streghe di Venezia” would never have seen the light of day otherwise.
2 thoughts on “Per i Bambini: The Witches of Venice – A children’s opera-ballet”
Fascinating! It was quite a surprising release, and the packaging was very nice.
I think Glass’ first mature composition for children is this one from Sesame Street:
(I think it’s also the first one to feature percussion, except for 1+1 maybe)
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