Where The Wild Things Are

Whilst the recent release of the film version Where the Wild Things Are, directed by Spike Jonze garnered column inches the world over, a trip into the Glyndebourne Archive reveals a wondrous operatic version, premiered by the Glyndebourne Touring Opera at the National Theatre in London in January 1984.

The one-act, 45 minute opera by Oliver Knussen featured a libretto by Maurice Sendak himself and was composed over four years between 1979 and 1983. With the original picture book format story featuring only 338 words, it proved a challenge for the duo to expand the story to fit the feature length format. As a result of its relatively short 45 minutes duration, Where the Wild Things Are was performed as a double-bill with Sendak and Knussen’s other opera, Higglety Pigglety Pop! – commissioned especially for Glyndebourne around the same time.

The story of Where the Wild Things Are tells the tale of Max, a young boy who dresses in a wolf suit. After throwing a tantrum, his mother sends him to his room. Max then escapes the confines of his bedroom in his dreams, sailing to a forested island, inhabited by the Wild Things who (according to the book) ‘…roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws’. Max is eventually hailed as their King, with the monsters calling him the ‘most wild thing of all’. At the end, Max awakens from his dream and eats the food his mother left for him whilst asleep.

Although easily accessible to all ages, there are decidedly dark elements to the story, which was, according to Sendak, centred around children’s growth, survival, experience of change and fury. The monsters in the story are in fact based upon Sendak’s relatives who regularly visited the family home in Brooklyn, New York. When illustrating the original book, Sendak decided to draw each wild thing as a caricature of a family member. Later, decades after publication, whilst writing the libretto for the opera Sendak decided to name the wild things after those family members – dubbing them Tzippy, Moishe, Aaron, Emile, and Bernard.

As well as writing the libretto and designing two-dimensional picture book style set, Sendak also conceived the stunning costumes – Lycra clad aluminium wild things standing nine to twelve feet tall and covered in Yak hair. The performers inside operated the mouths and arms whilst technicians in the audience controlled the movements of the mouths and noses.

The narrative-expanding score by Knussen melded a variety of musical influences from the Stravinsky-esque Wild Rumpus in which Max and the monsters dance with childish abandon to Debussy and Mussorgsky referencing snippets. Knussen went on to compose further works, re-working Higglety Pigglety Pop! in 1999.

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