‘The Secret Garden’ blooms into hope and visual bliss

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Claire Liu/Staff

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“The poetry of the earth is never dead,” wrote John Keats. This statement of the eternal power of nature is a perfect summary of Cal Performances’ and the San Francisco Opera’s latest production — an adaptation of the classic children’s novel “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, a novel written in 1910 whose message has remained relevant even after 100 years.

The libretto, conducted by Sara Jobin and directed by Jose Maria Condemi, tells the story of Mary Lennox (Sarah Shafer), a young girl who is sent to live with her detached uncle at Misselthwaite Manor in the gloomy moors of Yorkshire after her parents are killed by a cholera epidemic in India. The story develops from a place of darkness to one of positivity as Mary finds the key to an old, hidden garden, which she cultivates, bringing peace and gratitude to both her bleak situation and that of those who live with her at the manor.

The story itself is a simple tale: It reveals the healing power of nature and a triumph over misfortune and heartbreak. But the effort put into the visuals of the opera are astounding and sophisticated.

These stunning sets can be attributed to multimedia artist Naomie Kremer, whose work is exhibited at the Berkeley Art Museum and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. “I wanted (the sets) to be slightly surreal and sort of dreamlike,” she said. The visuals do indeed convey a sense of mystical eeriness. Projected onto large screens, images include Eastern-inspired patterns and natural, still visuals. However, some scenes include video projections of moving trees and swaying flowers to convey a sense of reality that many theatrical productions lack. Shot by Kremer in Spain, London, the Bay Area and Paris, these videos complement the opera’s vibrant and dazzling music.

This energetic music was composed by Nolan Gasser. Gasser, whose original works have been performed at the Rose Bowl and Carnegie Hall, has been hailed as a composer who writes music that audiences of all ages can enjoy.

“(Composers of the 21st century) have such a wide tool kit,” he said of his inspiration. This eclectic range of sources for the music of “The Secret Garden” can be seen in reference to location. The music set to the scenes in India is reminiscent of ragas, or harmonious musical phrases popular in both traditional Hindustani music and some modern Indian films. On the other hand, as the drama shifts to Misselthwaite Manor, the mood changes, and the music seems to draw from older English folk tunes. This extensive range of music may be attributed to Gasser’s contribution to Pandora’s Music Genome Project, for which he is the chief musicologist.

Though screen and stage adaptations of beloved novels are somewhat problematic and highly controversial among literature-lovers, “The Secret Garden” at Zellerbach Hall pleases as it sticks to the plot of the 1910 novel. The themes of the Frances Hodgson Burnett classic are conveyed through the uplifting music and modern visuals. Both the healing characteristics of nature and the reminder to look for beauty in the simple things in life are just as inspiring in the opera as they are in the novel.

“We found the key, and the garden gave us life,” remarks Mary at one point. Her innocent purity allows us to see the importance in overcoming obstacles, pain and anguish. Though a mere 10 years old, Mary proves the power of children. A heartwarming story of love, friendship and youth, “The Secret Garden” may have roots in the early 20th century, but its ultimate message of positivity blooms as it transcends generations.

Contact Addy Bhasin at [email protected].

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