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Mo Willems Finds Yet Another Way to Entertain Kids: Opera

“SLOPERA!” could only be performed live outdoors on account of the pandemic, but an indoor recording, with piano accompaniment, was shown virtually to more than 300,000 schoolchildren.” Piggie gets Gerald the Elephant to try slop, a stinky green delicacy among porcine foodies. He does, after his initial refusals upset his companion, and he endures the consequences in something like a bel canto mad (or death) scene. He recovers, though, and tells Piggie that while he might not like her food, he still likes her. Scored cutely by Simon, it is funny, catchy and in the end moving, a paean to friendship and trying new things.

“Everything that I do as a picture book writer is reductive,” Willems said, reflecting on what writing his first libretto taught him, aside from the importance of placing consonants carefully. “If you look at a picture book manuscript, and you can understand it, it has too many words. If you look at just the illustrations, and you can understand it, the drawings are too detailed. They both have to be incomprehensible. It’s very similar with writing an opera, that the words that you’re using have to be dependent on the music, but the music has to be dependent on the words, and either of them shouldn’t really be able to stand alone.”

WILLEMS CAUGHT THE opera bug and started planning a follow-up, “Don’t Let the Pigeon Sing Up Late!,” which O’Leary said was initially conceived as a monodrama for the inquisitive, intransigent Pigeon — akin to an avian “Erwartung.” Deborah Rutter, the Kennedy Center’s president, also suggested that Willems collaborate with Fleming, the center’s artistic adviser at large.

Fleming sent Willems reams of classic arias to listen to, select from and rewrite to fit how kids might experience emotions like joy, disgust or shame. “They are sung beautifully,” Fleming said of the results. “They are sung in all seriousness. It’s just the text. A, it’s in English, and B, it’s really devised for 6-year-olds.”

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