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Little Nemo in Slumberland: the genesis of the opera
a note by librettist J.D. McClatchy
Little Nemo in Slumberland is the sixth commission in the Sarasota Youth Opera’s illustrious quarter-century history. The call for a competition went out in 2006, and when the nod finally went to composer Daron Hagen and myself, I had another project in mind altogether—something about Johnny Appleseed. It was then that my friend, the designer Chip Kidd, asked if I had thought about Little Nemo. Bingo!
Little Nemo in Slumerland was one of the first American comic strips, and is still the most admired by connoisseurs. It started in the New York Herald on October 15, 1905, and ran until 1914. The genius behind it was Winsor McCay (1869–1934), a graphic artist of the first rank, whose sense of dream fantasy and whose exquisite draftsmanship helped bridge the divide between high art and the comics. (In fact, it was the first comic strip made into a Broadway musical, by Victor Herbert back in 1908, and in 1966 the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted an entire exhibit to McCay’s work.)
Reading through the Little Nemo series, I was struck at once by its marvelous format and possibilities. For a children’s opera, I was aiming to create what used to be called “magic opera”—a story dependent on fantastic theatrical effects—and Nemo’s exploits in Slumberland are just that. From among many different stories, I chose a few that I could make into a continuous dream-adventure, broken up by an “intermission” of daylight. I added or eliminated details, tried to give some depth to the characters, and shaped the story into a moral fable about courage and fairness and the wonders of the imagination. To intrigue the set designer, I stirred into the mix a parade of improbable sights and a scene in which the characters dramatically change size.
The composer and I hope we have given the Sarasota team and its remarkable cast of young singers an opera that will be a pleasure to perform and will give their audiences an experience that will thrill and charm them.