Rootabaga Country - Young People's Opera Review
Opera Review of Rootabaga Country
Music and Libretto by Rachel Peters; Adapted from Rootabaga Stories by Carl Sandburg
Review by Anne Basinski
Sarasota Opera commissioned this work. It gave the premier performance on November 11, 2017.
Rootabaga Country is a charming work by Rachel Peters. The adaptation of Carl Sandburg’s work has lots of whimsy and silly word play and a large cast. Aside from two adult men, the cast is meant to be young people - vocally it is approachable by singers from a young age through high-schoolers.
The best audience would likely be grade-school children, with the fanciful elements and simple messages like “…things we think of as flaws can actually be assets.” (Example: “Alelia had very big feet – people joked about it – but she was faster than anyone!”) and “…family is a group that loves one another and helps one another.”
The music is tonal and accessible, with jazz and folk elements worked in at times. Rhythmically there are changeable meters and the chorus has harmony with divisi, so singers need to be adept, and some time will be needed to prepare.
The choral involvement is pretty extensive. The score is clearly formatted, for piano and voices – though a recording of the original has orchestration including strings, brass, woodwinds, piano, keyboard and percussion.
Vocally the solos range from quite short to extensive. In particular, the two leading children’s roles, Please Gimme and Ax Me No Questions, need good vocal and musical skills. There are a couple of dances included – not too fancy.
Production elements need some planning and probably some budget because of highly fanciful costumes – two singers costumed as mittens, highly specific professions: plumber, police officer, doctor, mayor, and two costumes featuring popcorn, for example. A lot of the effect of the show comes from very colorful, bright stage pictures once the family starts its journey.
The run time is about 75 minutes.
Rootabaga Country is an adaptation of selections from Carl Sandburg’s 1922 collection, Rootabaga Stories.
Gimme the Ax and his two children, Please Gimme and Ax Me No Questions, sell all their possessions and board the Zigzag Railroad to Rootabaga Country, a land in the sky. Alelia, Gimme the Ax’s wife, disappeared when the children were very small. The family’s journey to Alelia’s favorite place is their way to connect with her once again.
Once there they meet the Potato Face Blind Man, who stations himself at every town’s post office and leads the family to the land's unique citizens. Gimme the Ax relates each encounter to a touching memory of Alelia.
The children discover that a family is “Maybe not four perfect people” but rather “Anybody rooting for each other/When the world is cattywompus”.
GIMME THE AX, Adult tenor role--an extraordinary ordinary man, old enough to be a father,
PLEASE GIMME, his son, 6 years old.
AX ME NO QUESTIONS, his daughter, 9 years old.
POTATO FACE BLIND MAN, Adult bass-baritone role--a beggar, old enough to be wise.
Note from the composer: “All roles except for Gimme the Ax and Potato Face Blind Man are played by treble children in approximately the same vocal range. All roles can be played by people of any shape, size or color. Many roles can be played by people of any gender.”
Other solo roles:
JASON SQUIFF, a plumber
BLIXIE BIMBER, his customer
THE KERNEL, his unsolicited guide
SNIPPO HIKE, a troublesome boy
BEVO HIKE, his father
MRS. AXENBAX, his teacher
MAYOR, WEATHERMAN, DOCTOR, TRAFFIC COP,
HENRY HAGGLYHOAGLY, a balladeer in love
HIS TWO MITTENS
SUSAN SLACKENTWIST, a princess/Henry’s sweetheart
CHORUS (SAB w divisi) as the ZigZag Railroad and Citizens of Rootabaga Country