City makes its opera debut

The event is long overdue, but now that it’s imminent, there is a definite logic at work. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is debuting Dec. 9 at the L.A. Opera, marking the first world premiere of an American opera in Los Angeles.

And Hollywood, after all, loves the works of Roald Dahl, who wrote the children’s novella upon which composer Tobias Picker and librettist Donald Sturrock’s opera is based. Four of Dahl’s books — “Matilda,” “The Witches,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach” — have been translated to the bigscreen. And as for a Hollywood pedigree, composer Picker may never have spent “more than five days” in L.A., but his family goes back to the very beginning of the film industry here.

Family affair

“My great-uncle, David Picker, was a partner of Marcus Loew (of Loews Theaters fame),” Picker begins, ticking off the names. “My grandfather, Isaac Picker, owned the candy concessions in all the Loews theaters. My uncle, Arnold Picker, founded the new United Artists with Arthur Krim in 1951.” Then there’s a whole host of cousins in the biz: Film producer David Picker (“The Crucible”); Karen Picker, a Miramax marketing veep; and Jean Picker Firstenberg, director and CEO of the American Film Institute.

Despite all the illustrious family connections, nepotism has played no part in Tobias Picker’s showbiz career. His first opera, “Emmeline,” just finished its second season at the New York City Opera, after a very successful world premiere in Santa Fe in 1996, which led to a commission by the Metropolitan Opera. That opera, as yet untitled, will debut in 2002.

Picker has yet to fulfill one ambition: to compose a movie score. “I’d like to one day,” he says, “if the right film comes along.”

The composer lives north of New York City in the Hudson Valley, “in a deep forest,” he says quite proudly, “where there are only animals and no people.” That makes him the perfect person to give voice to Dahl’s foxes, hedgehogs, porcupines and rats in “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” about a war between three farmers and the wild creatures who can’t keep their paws out of the chicken coops.

“The humans are grotesque,” says librettist Sturrock. “The animals are the virtuous ones — touching and tender and appealing.”

Sturrock is director of the Roald Dahl Foundation, which has commissioned several non-operatic compositions to accompany narrations of works by the writer, who died in 1990.

Sturrock and Dahl’s widow, Liccy, were in L.A. working on some film deals when they met with fellow Brit Peter Hemmings, general director of the L.A. Opera, about turning one of Dahl’s works into an opera. Picker came to the project later, after Sturrock had already begun work on the “Fantastic Mr. Fox” libretto. “It was quite fortuitous,” Sturrock recalls. “Liccy Dahl and I were in Santa Fe at the first performance of ‘Emmeline,’ which was absolutely fantastic. It all went from there.”

Besides “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” the Southland has been host to the recent world premieres of Myron Fink’s opera “Conquistador,” in San Diego, and Andre Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” in San Francisco.

Picker’s new opera, however, may have the best shot at a truly starry future. With Gerald Scarfe’s fantastical costume and set designs, Dahl’s page-to-film track record, the composer’s family connections and an audience full of Hollywood heavyweights at the L.A. Opera, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” soon may be appearing on cineplex screens everywhere.

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