The Golden Ticket, a new opera based on Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, was commissioned by American Lyric Theater and Felicity Dahl – but getting to its triumphant premiere was far from easy!  Lawrence Edelson, Founder and Producing Artistic Director of ALT, discusses The Golden Ticket’s journey from a sparkle in the eyes of composer Peter Ash and librettist Donald Sturrock, to the world premiere on June 13, 2010 at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Around the same time ALT was being formed in 2005, an ambitious American composer and British librettist were sending out a sample recording of excerpts from a new opera called The Golden Ticket. About a year later, I discovered this operatic version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory while doing research on OPERA America’s website. While I had never heard of the composer, I certainly had heard of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory! I was intrigued, and reached out to Peter Ash and Donald Sturrock for more information.

When I reviewed the score and libretto of The Golden Ticket, with their excerpts CD, I became even more intrigued. Donald had captured Dahl’s fantastic imagination in the libretto, and Peter’s score simply blew me away. Not only was the music beautiful and theatrical, it ingeniously used many traditional operatic conventions to help portray different characters. What a wonderful way to introduce young audiences to opera! I felt the piece needed further development, but it was exactly the type of piece that ALT should be championing — both to support gifted composers and librettists, and to bring new audiences to opera.

Shortly thereafter, I met with both of them in London. We went through the entire libretto and score, talked very openly about the challenges of the piece, and discussed where revisions might be appropriate. They introduced me to Roald Dahl’s widow, Liccy, whose passion for the project further fueled my excitement. Liccy made me aware of some legal issues surrounding the rights that would have to be handled carefully, but even those challenges could not dissuade me from moving forward. ALT co-commissioned the completion of the opera with Liccy, and ALT has had the privilege to work with Donald and Peter over the past three years.

On that trip, I learned that the seeds for The Golden Ticket were planted many years earlier. In 1997, Donald, a friend of the Dahl family who had been involved in previous adaptations of Roald Dahl’s works, had been invited to listen to a demo tape of some songs for a proposed new musical of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He asked his friend and collaborator, Peter, for a second opinion. After listening to the CD, Peter’s response was unexpected. “I’d like to have a go at that — but it needs to be an opera, not a musical!”

Over thirteen years the piece has faced many obstacles. The first ones were legal. Roald Dahl had previously sold the stage rights for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, so the rights for an operatic adaptation were not initially available. In addition, writing an opera ‘on spec’ without the support of a major opera company is considered by many to be an exercise in futility, but Peter and Donald were passionate about the project, and committed to making it happen.

Two early advocates for the piece were Sir Trevor Nunn, then Artistic Director of the Royal National Theatre in London, and Sue Higginson, who ran their studio that developed new work. They gave Peter and Donald the opportunity to workshop the skeleton of the opera that will premiere in June 2010. Despite the wonderful resources available at the National Theatre, classically trained singers had to be brought in for all of the roles, since members of the ensemble company could not sing the music. A theater company simply could not provide the right environment for the further development and production of a full-scale opera.

This early workshop provided the catalyst for a crucial next step in the opera’s future. Representatives from a small chamber orchestra, the Manchester Camerata, had attended the workshop. They decided to stage a concert performance of the piece in 2001. Although advertised as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — An Opera in Concert, many who attended expected to see a staged musical version of the famous 1970 movie. Shortly afterwards, Peter and Donald renamed their opera The Golden Ticket. Based on this concert, Britain’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts awarded Donald and Peter a grant to record twenty-five minutes of excerpts from the opera on a CD which they then sent out to every opera company in Europe and the United States.

Opera companies receive unsolicited scores and recordings all the time. I was not terribly surprised to learn that their wonderful CD received very little attention. Though many companies will produce contemporary operas once they’ve been proven successful, there are only a few who are willing to take a risk on a new opera — and even fewer willing to take that risk on a work by an emerging composer who is not already in the public eye. Though no traditional opera company was ready to take the opera under its wing, The Golden Ticket represented so many of the reasons ALT was created.

In 2007, ALT held a developmental workshop of the opera in New York City to look at revisions to the score and libretto, and to examine the performance resources that would be necessary to bring it to life. ALT considered producing the opera independently, but ultimately decided that collaboration with another company would be in the best interest of the future of the piece. In early 2008, I reached out to Timothy O’Leary and James Robinson (General Director and Artistic Director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis) about the possibility of mounting the world premiere. Opera Theatre was not only excited by the potential in The Golden Ticket, but had a history of championing new operas. By the summer OTSL had committed to the project, and ALT put the wheels in motion for a final developmental workshop in New York City. Jim and the design team came to New York for that workshop in April 2009, and since then, OTSL has become an incredible advocate for the piece, securing The Wexford Festival as a second co-producer. The Golden Ticket was presented for a third time in partnership with The Atlanta Opera in March 2012. ALT recorded these performances, conducted by composer Peter Ash, which will be released on the Albany label in December 2012.

The Golden Ticket would not have been possible without the passion and commitment of many different people around the globe. ALT has been honored to play a role in bringing it to the stage, and grateful to OTSL for their vision in seeing the potential in not only this wonderful new opera, but in a new form of collaboration to bring new works to the public. Thank you to everyone who has played a role on this journey.

LEADERSHIP SUPPORT FOR THE GOLDEN TICKET: Lawrence Edelson, Kevin F. Kotcher, Margret Louis and Robert Ebin, Sherry Snipes-Graham and Family, Carl Raymond, Ellen Was, Sir David Tang, The Dorothy Loudon Foundation, JPMorgan Chase, Pro Musica Tours

WORKSHOP SUPPORTERS: Stephen Campanella, Elihu and Marjorie Edelson, William Kapfer and Eric Baker, Adam Meiras, A. Joshua Parrillo, Rorie L. Rueckert, Justin Steensma, Stephen Weiner and Don Cornuet, The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs

The Golden Ticket was commissioned by American Lyric Theater and Felicity Dahl.

American Lyric Theater wishes to thank the following individuals, without whose assistance and dedication, the world premiere of The Golden Ticket would not have been possible: Amanda Conquy, Felicity Dahl, Jane Hargraft, Jeff Myers, Timothy O’Leary, and James Robinson.

Special thanks to all of the artists who have been involved in the developmental workshops of The Golden Ticket at ALT.

REVIEWS FROM THE WORLD PREMIERE

“Author Roald Dahl wrote many memorable creations, but “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” stands out in particular for its inventiveness, sly wit and marvelous cast of characters. “The Golden Ticket,” by composer Peter Ash and librettist Donald Sturrock, does Willy Wonka & Co. justice – and so does the world premiere production… There aren’t that many new operas designed to make the audience laugh out loud. “Ticket”… does just that – and with honest, sweet humor – combining ingenious music that neatly parodies assorted operatic cliches and a clever libretto that has fun with Dahl’s delicious morality play. Add to that a nearly ideal cast, and you have something enjoyable for adults and children alike.” – St. Louis Post Dispatch

“Donald Sturrock’s libretto captures the wit, wizardry and wonder of Dahl’s story about five children who gain access to the legendary Willy Wonka’s confectionery establishment in a contest by finding golden tickets in their chocolates. The largely expository first act introduces the lucky children, who instantly become media darlings, but the fun really begins – and the dramatic tempo accelerates – in Act 2 when they go through trials not unlike reality television or perhaps – as children in the audience may someday recognise – The Magic Flute, overseen by Wonka with Sarastro-like benevolence and fearsomeness. Apart from Charlie, the children are played by adults, each quickly establishing objectionable qualities and eventually falling by the wayside, or, in one case, into a veritable stream of flowing chocolate, cleverly depicted by Bruno Schwengl’s cartoonishly fanciful sets. Another child, Violet Beauregard (extravagantly sung by coloratura soprano Tracy Dahl) ODs on chewing gum that replicates a three-course-meal (including soup). Though not widely known, the American composer Ash has produced a fun-filled score with a zippy, contemporary ambience that makes room for a tune or two you can remember and deft allusions to past operas – the child Augustus Gloop (stentorianly sung by tenor Andrew Drost) in an emotional moment briefly adopts a Puccinian air. And the music takes on an appealing note of sentiment when Wonka names Charlie as his business successor. Boy soprano Michael Kepler Meo sings Charlie with due innocence, and bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch is imposing as Wonka. Others in the uniformly strong cast include Jennifer Rivera, in lustrous voice as the spoiled teenager Veruca Salt, David Kravitz, as her indulgent father, and Frank Kelley as Charlie’s Grandpa Joe. Timothy Redmond conducts with a verve that matches James Robinson’s energetic staging, with Martin Pakledinaz’s colourfully inventive costumes nicely complementing Schwengl’s sets. The Golden Ticket is seen in a co-production with American Lyric Theater and Wexford Festival Opera.” – London Financial Times

“…a fanciful tale meets theater of the absurd meets opera. Sturrock’s libretto bubbles along with fun rhyming couplets, and the music is surprisingly sophisticated.” – Dallas Morning News

“…this charming rendition of Roald Dahl’s children’s novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is bound to become a success…The team of lyricist and librettist Donald Sturrock and composer Peter Ash has provided a delightful score that complements the now-familiar story quite well. The production also benefits from the snappy stage direction by James Robinson and the work of conductor Timothy Redmond, who leads members of the St. Louis Symphony in fine fashion. The cast is also first-rate, led by opera star Daniel Okulitch… who captures the mix of playfulness and wickedness which is the keynote of Willy Wonka.” – Theatermania

“The opera’s best music is edgy and snappy, its astringent orchestration giving prominence to the winds and the brass, capturing the story’s restless unpredictability… Ash and Sturrock are particularly successful in Act I, establishing the impoverished Charlie’s grim life…and the wonderfully disagreeable characteristics of the four other children who, like Charlie, win visits to the candy factory of the mysterious Willy Wonka. Only Charlie is sung by a child (the gifted boy soprano Michael Kepler Meo); the other children, sung by adults, cleverly reference operatic stereotypes. There’s pushy, gum-chewing Violet Beauregard (Tracy Dahl executed the manic bel canto coloratura with élan); the violence-obsessed TV addict Mike Teavee (given a stuttering Handelian quality by countertenor David Trudgen); the gluttonous Augustus Gloop (Andrew Drost, with hilarious preening tenor mannerisms) and the monstrously spoiled rich girl-diva Veruca Salt (Jennifer Rivera). High points include intricate ensemble writing for the children and their parents, as well as a bright, syncopated chorus by a bevy of female squirrels in elegant Turkish costumes who test nuts with little hammers, deem Veruca a “bad nut,” and toss her down the rubbish chute. Timothy Redmond was the skillful conductor…Martin Pakledinaz outdid himself on the children’s costumes…” – The Wall Street Journal

“… Ash, an Iowa native also active as a conductor, has produced a real opera with an upbeat, melodically appealing, contemporary score, yet it doesn’t play down to its audience…Ash’s musical allusions to other operas are clever while not overly obvious. When a foodstuff called called Turkish Delight turns up, I detected a hint not just of Turkish music but of Mozart’s Turkish music. At an emotionally fraught moment, Augustus Gloop (stentorianly sung by tenor Andrew Drost) adopts Puccini-like mannerisms…In addition, the music takes on an appealing note of sentiment when, after Wonka names Charlie as his business successor, Ash develops a tune that includes a two-note figure to which the name “Charlie” is often sung. Boy soprano Michael Kepler Meo sings Charlie with due innocence, and bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch is imposing as the authoritative Wonka. Others in the uniformly strong cast include Tracy Dahl, whose coloratura soprano proves ideal for Violet’s outbursts, Jennifer Rivera, in lustrous voice as the spoiled teenager Veruca Salt, David Kravitz, as her indulgent father, and Frank Kelly, as Charlie’s Grandpa Joe. Timothy Redmond conducts with a verve that matches James Robinson’s energetic staging, with Martin Pakledinaz’s colourfully inventive costumes nicely complementing Schwengl’s sets.”- The Classical Review

“New operas that can be shared and enjoyed by the entire family have been pitifully scarce since Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” debuted on television in 1951. “The Golden Ticket,” based on Roald Dahl’s subversive children’s story “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” fills that gaping void with a deliciously droll fantasy kids will cheer (and did at the performance I attended) and adults can savor without risking tooth decay. Charlie, a poor boy with chocolate-covered dreams, has his wish come true when he wins one of five golden tickets that admit their holders inside the top-secret factory run by the mysterious confectioner Willy Wonka. Four odious children, each a greedy, gluttonous or selfish caricature, join Charlie for a guided tour of Wonka’s magical house of sweets. This being a cautionary tale, the nasty kids eventually get their comeuppance, while Charlie is rewarded for his good-heartedness.The delightful production by OTSL artistic director James Robinson conjured a Neverland filled with Rube Goldberg-style candy-making machines, a milk chocolate river and a cadre of elf-like workers known as Oompa-Loompas. Bruno Schwengl’s sets and Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes were as whimsically over the top as the piece requires. Ash’s score added to the fun with its artful blend of simplicity and sophistication, leavened with sly references to music of Handel, Mozart, Wagner and other operatic composers. It was skillfully played by members of the St. Louis Symphony under Timothy Redmond…. Stealing the show were Tracy Dahl, David Trudgen, Jennifer Rivera and Andrew Drost as the bad kids Violet Beauregard, Mike Teavee, Veruca Salt and Augustus Gloop – children so hateful you had to adore them.”- The Chicago Tribune

“There are easier things than launching a new comic family friendly opera, like. . . rocket science, perhaps. But OTSL scored another major success with its world premiere of composer Peter Ash’s and librettist Donald Sturrock’s “The Golden Ticket”…Both composer and librettist displayed considerable wit and imagination, and Mr. Ash made the orchestra a willing accomplice with characterful inventions…All in all, aurally and dramatically the piece is accessible, interesting, and highly entertaining. Much of the musical success must lie with conductor Timothy Redmond, who led the reduced orchestra…with great conviction, rhythmic precision, and rhapsodic sweep…A large part of the actors’ total success in creating these iconic characters has to be credited to the dazzling costumes by Martin Pakledinaz…Bruno Schwengl’s amazingly mobile and versatile scenery was also first-rate and did not miss a trick in supporting the requisite special effects…” – Opera Today

“…an appropriately tasty concoction of juvenile humor, adult wit, and musical invention with just the right amount of creepiness. Composer Peter Ash has an impressive conducting resume, so it’s perhaps not surprising that his work makes ingenious and clever use of the orchestra. Delicate ensemble passages alternate with great whoops and rushes of sound and unexpected instrumental combinations abound. The score is peppered with musical jokes, including characteristic music for the four badly behaved children who come to grief in Willy Wonka’s factory. The egomaniacal Violet Beauregard, for example, sings in florid coloratura flourishes while the piggish Augustus Gloop parodies the stereotypical portly Italian tenor by spewing saccharine mock Puccini. Meanwhile Mike Teavee, who is obsessed with violent television, stutters machine-gun staccato passages. As the Artistic Director of the Roald Dahl Foundation, librettist Donald Sturrock brings an insider’s perspective to the words that accompany Mr. Ash’s music. Fans of the book will likely be delighted to discover that the stage adaptation includes not only the major elements of the published version of the original novel, but bits and pieces of Dahl’s numerous revisions as well… It’s literate enough to keep adults engaged but chockablock with sufficient jokes to hold the attention of all but the youngest children-no small accomplishment.” – KDHX / StageLeft