Try closing your eyes during the first measures of the quiet, slightly foreboding overture for “Burt Dow, Deep Water Man,” the new children’s opera premiering at the Stonington Opera House this Thursday, July 1. The wind quartet, piano and percussion players conjure up images of a sunrise on the coast of Maine. Lobster boats bob gently on the harbor. Fog lifts from the water as the temperature rises. Gulls and people both begin their day.
The image conjured up by the music and the reality outside the Opera House aren’t all that different from each other; in 2010, as in 1960, Stonington Harbor is still a working waterfront. “Burt Dow,” based on the classic 1963 book by renowned children’s author and illustrator Robert McCloskey, is a sweet-natured, utterly charming tribute to Stonington and Deer Isle, and to coastal Maine communities in general.
“I see the ocean as being one of the characters,” said longtime summer Stonington resident Maia Aprahamian, the San Francisco-based composer who wrote “Burt Dow.” “It has this tremendous depth and mystery that you never can define. That’s what I wanted to portray in the beginning, and ask the question, ‘How do people survive when they live on the ocean?’ That’s why I brought the townspeople in after, with this burst of very cheery music.”
That cheery music is the theme to “Burt Dow,” with a cast of 21 singing an opening song about the eponymous “deep water man.” Burt Dow, played by longtime Portland actor Daniel Noel, takes his leaky boat, the Tidely-Idley, out for a spin one morning. Burt and his sidekick, the Giggling Gull, played by the 8-year-old Stonington resident Riley Getto, run into quite a bit of trouble along the way.
What some may not know is that Burt Dow was a real person. He was a Stonington fisherman, who knew McCloskey and his family during the years they lived on the island.
“He was generally known on the island,” said Judith Jerome, artistic director of Opera House Arts at the Stonington Opera House. “He was indeed a deep water man. We know he crewed on the Defender, part of the Stonington Yacht Club. He is buried here. There are a few pictures. But that’s really it.”
McCloskey, who vividly portrayed island life in Maine in his many books, based his tale on the real man. Aprahamian and director Joan Jubett based their opera on McCloskey’s book. And the eight Stonington-area children, ages 8 to 14, who make up part of the 18-person chorus, helped write the lyrics to Aprahamian’s lively, jaunty, inherently hummable score.
The idea for “Burt Dow” came nearly four years ago, when Jerome began a conversation with Aprahamian about adapting the book into a musical theatrical setting. Aprahamian, 75, has composed opera, ballet, choral and instrumental works over the course of her long career, including an opera based on the Leo Tolstoy story, “The Three Holy Hermits,” and “The Treatment Room,” which chronicles the lives of four patients over two days in a chemotherapy ward.
“Burt Dow” is a much lighter setting for an opera than those other two — but it’s just as meaningful to Aprahamian. She has had a lifelong connection to McCloskey and to Stonington. Members of her extended family have lived on the island for generations.
“My uncle Francis Williams was a big character around the island, and he used to deliver ice to [Robert McCloskey] before they had electricity. I went with him once,” she said. “[Burt Dow] seemed to be such a perfect picture of the whole Stonington area. My hope is that the audience will feel like they’ve entered into Stonington, in an earlier era, so that it isn’t something so removed from their lives. I want them to feel a part of it. I guess it’s kind of an ode to Stonington.”
It wasn’t until 2007 that the writing process began, and by 2009 a score had taken shape. Input from Stonington children and from community members helped bring the piece to life. For the summer 2009 season at the Opera House, a sing-through of “Burt Dow” was performed with local actors and a skeletal set.
The full production this year features a multilevel set designed by David Barber, with fantastic props designed by sculptor Michael Stasiuk. The Tidely-Idley comes spouting out of the water, rising up from below the stage for Daniel Noel, the actor who plays Burt, to stand in. Birds, flowers, whale tails and seagulls careen in and out of the picture. The color scheme plays off McCloskey’s pink, yellow and green-themed illustrations, though it also incorporates real-life elements, such as whitewashed shingles and unfinished wood.
Noel plays Dow like a big bear, growling and gruff but inherently good. He may grumble, but his wife, Leela (Suzanne Ruch), and his pet, the Giggling Gull (the 8-year-old Getto, who is as adorable as they come), provide leverage. Musical director Peter Szep gets a big, beautiful sound out of his cast, getting young and old alike to sing out and with gusto.
Though it’s being billed as a children’s opera, the classification for “Burt Dow” is a little hard to realistically make.
“We’re calling it a ‘musical treatment,’” said New York-based director Joan Jubett, who has appeared in a number of Shakespeare in Stonington productions. “Is it light opera? An operetta? A musical? There are parts of it that feel like a musical, and there are parts that are almost chantlike. There are a lot of beautiful, lyrical parts to it, too. It’s hard to classify.”
Whatever the nomenclature, “Burt Dow” is notable for many reasons — not least of which is the fact that it’s an original work, premiered in Maine. The fact it is so accessible, kid-friendly and fun (while still operating a high level of artistic vision) only makes it more of a treat.
BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTOS BY GABOR DEGRE
Daniel Noel stars as Burt Dow during rehearsal for Robert McCloskey’s “Burt Dow, Deep Water Man,” at the Stonington Opera House last week.
Amy Bolton (foreground) runs past Alyssa Chesney (from left), Marvin Merritt and Justine Rhys during a rehearsal for the children’s choir for “Burt Dow, Deep Water Man,” at the Stonington Opera House last week.