Contemporary stories are having a welcome moment at Lyric Opera. While Dead Man Walking continues its powerful run at the Civic Opera House, a new Lyric kids’ opera, Earth to Kenzie, takes on the subject of homelessness. The 45-minute work, with music by Frances Pollock and libretto by Jessica Murphy Moo, was commissioned by Lyric for a series of local school performances (some of which were canceled during the CTU strike). There are three ticketed public performances this weekend at the Vittum Theater.
Geared to kids ages seven to 12, Earth to Kenzie is the story of a fifth-grader facing the loss of her home to a developer who’s going to build “a shiny high-rise” in its place. Kenzie is an avid video-game player with an active imagination, an avatar named Edwin (think Papageno in The Magic Flute), and a case of urban asthma. While her classmates are enjoying the winter holiday break, she and her mom will be on the street—seeking a homeless shelter and sleeping in their car until they find it.
This is alarming to Kenzie, and embarrassing. She doesn’t want to talk or even think about it. When her teacher assigns an essay on “What I Did Over Break,” it seems like the last straw. But not to worry—the heavy stuff never gets too heavy. After a dream sequence in which she and Edwin travel to the planet Catulon (home to a very large space kitty) followed by some rhythmic audience clapping, there’s a happy ending back on earth.
A cast of four fine singer-actors deftly handle the opera’s multiple roles. Soprano Kateri Gormley is Kenzie; mezzo-soprano Emma Ritter is her stressed-but-loving mom as well as a dream-sequence classmate; mezzo-soprano Christina Pecce is the always-ready avatar and a real-life friend; and bass-baritone Keanon Kyles is teacher, taxi driver, and the big cat. Accompanied by pianist Yasuko Oura and directed by Jess McLeod, they’re all terrific. And a postshow Q&A allows them to explain some of what folks like set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec and costume designer Mieka van der Ploeg do to get an opera ready for the stage.
An informal poll of fourth-graders sitting around me for a performance at Senn High School this week revealed that—just as in opera for adults—without supertitles, it’s hard to catch some of the words. That said, the story line was clear to them, and they were captivated. v