Q&A: Where the Wild Things Are at New York City Opera

On April 9 Julian Kuerti makes his New York and New York City Opera debut leading Oliver Knussen’s Where the Wild Things Are.  The Canadian conductor recently completed his three-year post as Assistant Conductor to James Levine at the Boston Symphony Orchestra.  This season he has made significant debuts with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Seattle, New Jersey, Vancouver, Rochester, Toledo and Quebec Symphonies, and he will conduct the Atlanta Symphony for the first time later this month.

Kuerti took a break from rehearsal at New York City Opera to talk with 21C Media Group’s Wende Persons about the opera Where the Wild Things Are, which is based on the children’s book by writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak.

WP: What is the story of this opera?

JK: It’s about a boy named Max who gets sent to his room without any supper, and he decides that he’s had it with his mom and being told what to do.  He gets on his boat and sails to the island of Where the Wild Things Are where he quickly becomes their king and leads them on a wild rumpus and sends them to bed without their supper.  Then he realizes he’s tired and hungry and he wants to go back home.  So he gets back in his boat and ends up in his bedroom where there is a hot meal awaiting him.

It’s a book I grew up with as a kid.  I read it, my parents read it to me, and I’ve always had a strong connection to it.

WP:  What does that little boy learn?  Is there a moral to the story?

JK: I don’t know if it’s so explicit.  I think it’s just sort of an adventure.  Maybe the one thing he learns is that no matter how strict his parents are they still love him and they’re looking out for him.  And even if he gets sent to bed without his dinner, he’ll still get it in the end.  Maybe that’s the message! [LAUGHS]

WP: I recently saw the 2009 Spike Jonze movie version of this book on TV.  IMDB said each of the Wild Things represented different phases of teen angst.  Do you agree?

JK: I don’t think the opera’s Wild Things have anything to do with the shadows of teenage angst.  I think they’re more arch-types or caricatures of parental figures telling him, “You can’t do that,” and then being able to disobey them and romp around.

WP: How would you characterize Knussen’s music in this opera?  What will the audience hear?

JK: I think it’s very playful.  It’s very vivid.  There are some great little melodies and ideas, but it moves very quickly.  Imagine Verdi meets Britten.  It’s very tightly composed.  Everything is very meticulous, but also very alive.

WP: What’s the orchestration like?

JK: It’s a fairly small orchestra, but there is a lot of percussion, so it sounds like an orchestra twice or three times its size.  The orchestration is very lush.  There’s a lot of color and inventive uses of instruments such as percussion, piano and harp. The music itself is also fiendishly difficult to play.  For the conductor, there are a lot of balance questions, and no two bars have the same tempo.

WP: Isn’t there an invented language in this opera?

JK: Yes, the Wild Things sing in an invented language based loosely on Yiddish.  Maybe this is the way a little Maurice Sendak would have heard Yiddish from his parents and relatives without being able to understand it.  The sounds his ears picked up might have gone into the language the Wild Things speak.

WP:  For this invented language is New York City Opera using subtitles?

JK: No. The Wild Things language is a made-up language, and not meant to represent actual words – it was never intended to be taken literally. There will only be subtitles for the English that’s sung because sometimes it’s difficult to hear and understand. There were subtitles used this past summer at Tanglewood which the composer authorized.

WP: So Oliver Knussen knew you were doing this at City Opera, and you talked together?

JK:  Sure, and we talked a lot at Tanglewood.  I sat with him for the dress rehearsal there and he would nudge me every so often and tell me things like, “If I wrote this again now, I wouldn’t have put any cymbals in this part.”  He shared a lot of tricks about the balance, which were great to hear first hand.

WP: When City Opera premiered Where the Wild Things Are, the production based its visuals directly on Sendak’s book.

JK: Yes, there was a production at City Opera from 1987 where the scenic design was done in collaboration with Maurice Sendak. This instead will feature the artwork of many school children.  City Opera has been visiting schools and telling students about the story with some of the music. The kids have been asked to produce art that will form the visual element.  It’s not going to be a big lavish production with masks, costumes and sets.  It’s more of an imagination exercise featuring the work of these kids.

WP: This is your New York City Opera debut and your New York debut!

JK: Yes, I love opera, and it’s great to be here at Lincoln Center doing this magical piece!


Family Opera in Concert:
Where the Wild Things Are
Saturday, April 9, 2011 at 1:30 PM
David H. Koch Theater

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