For the first time in its 32-year history, the Atlanta Opera has commissioned a new work. It’s a strictly local affair: a one-hour children’s opera based on Joel Chandler Harris’ “Br’er Rabbit” stories. Atlanta playwright Madeleine St. Romain finished the libretto this week and passed it to Atlanta composer Nicole Chamberlain, who’s racing for her deadline. The opera is tentatively titled “Rabbit Tales.”
The premiere will come October 24 through November 18 as part of Atlanta Opera Studio performances in area elementary schools. The public premiere is scheduled for October 29 at the Wren’s Nest, Harris’ historic home, now a museum.
An editor and editorial writer at The Atlanta Constitution in the late 19th century, Harris was a colleague of Henry Grady’s during the nascent “New South” era. In the then-progressive Constitution, Harris first published his versions of African-American folklore as Uncle Remus stories, which remain controversial. Although the stories became internationally famous and were said to have influenced countless writers, from Winnie-the-Pooh creator A.A. Milne to James Joyce, there’s a remarkable dearth of scholarly work on Harris’ writings. The online New Georgia Encyclopedia, to cite one complication, notes that Georgia-born novelist Alice Walker has said that “Harris had stolen her African-American folklore heritage and had made it a white man’s publishing commodity.” (Disney’s film “Song of the South” — never released for home viewing — was based on Harris’ tales; like “Gone With the Wind,” it created a false history of race and cultural identity in the old South.)
The new opera skirts the controversy by celebrating the multicultural elements of Harris’ stories. According to a statement from the Atlanta Opera, “the Br’er Rabbit stories can be traced back to ‘trickster’ figures in African folklore, particularly the hare, a character that is prominent in the storytelling traditions of Western, Central and Southern Africa. This production will be a contemporary, light-hearted rendering of several story lines from Native American, African, and Cajun Folklore.”
“When we talked about it,” says composer Chamberlain, a modern-music flutist with a strong local reputation, “we didn’t want to sing down to the kids. They know immediately if you’re talking down to them. We didn’t want to lose the integrity of an opera with substance. The many cultures in the stories lend themselves to many types of music.”
At 34, Chamberlain had been on the radar of Atlanta Opera education manager Emmalee Iden, who’s coordinating the commission. Chamberlain won the “audience favorite” prize in the Atlanta Opera’s 24-hour opera project last November with “Scrub a Dub Raw,” which she describes as “a redneck wedding story,” complete with washboard and rubber chicken as props. As a flute teacher she has direct educational experience, and she has also worked for a small multimedia firm, as an animator and composer, devoted to improving children’s “emotional well-being.” She feels that this commission plays to many of her strengths.
And her musical style? “My husband Brian, who’s also a composer, says I’m approachable with a reined-in experimental quality,” Chamberlain replies. “I think my music is pretty mainstream and tonal. I’m not pushing any envelopes.”
By design, “Rabbit Tales” will be portable. Meant for the hard-to-please kindergarten through fifth grade audience, it will be scored for soprano, mezzo, tenor and baritone with piano accompaniment. To make the score more marketable, Chamberlain was instructed to create an alternative version for two sopranos, tenor and baritone. She’s contemplating audience involvement to be built into the show, perhaps with children adding percussion effects.
Above all, the composer knows that a successful opera will delight its target audience. “How cool would it be for kids to be humming your tunes when they leave the show?”