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‘Secret Garden’ a hit with opera’s young target audience

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Sarah Shafer

Composer Nolan Gasser’s opera “The Secret Garden,” based on the moving story from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic 1910 book, is a feast for the eyes and ears.

The joint San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances presentation is meant to attract families. Sunday’s matinee audience at Zellerbach Hall was filled with young folks who were quietly attentive and enthusiastic with applause.

Perhaps they responded more to Naomie Kremer’s dazzling visual design of projections and videos, and the superb cast, rather than to the monotonous, relentlessly swift music, which never blossomed as does the garden in the story.

On the plus side, the tonal, pleasant music complemented the singers (who were easy to understand, with help from supertitles), and was performed well by a 10-piece San Francisco Opera orchestra under the baton of Sara Jobin.

Carey Harrison’s libretto succeeds in realizing the popular story about young Mary Lennox, who, neglected by British parents in India and then orphaned in a cholera epidemic, is  sent to a strange household of relatives in Yorkshire, England.

Directed by Jose Maria Condemi, and boosted by the amazing visual design, the tale of Mary’s adventures and eventual redemption engrossed and delighted youngsters in the audience, especially those who could handle reading the rapid supertitles.

One of the opera’s great strengths came in the casting of the primary role, 10-year-old Mary. Sarah Shafer, a Curtis Institute graduate student with a notable career, has a powerful and lyrical voice, great projection and diction, and mostly maintained the illusion of being half her age despite a few lapses into adult body language.

Wondrous former boy soprano, 13-year-old tenor Michael Kepler Meo, nicely played 10-year-old Colin, the ailing child whom Mary befriends. Scott Joiner, in his local debut, was splendid as Dickon, another friend.

Adler Fellows Laura Krumm, Erin Johnson, Marina Harris, Philippe Sly and Ao Li were uniformly outstanding.


The Secret Garden

Presented by the San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances

  • Where: Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, near Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday
  • Tickets: $15 to $80
  • Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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