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Where the Wild Things Are – 2nd year

‘Where the Wild Things are’, originally a book written by Maurice Sendak in 1963, has since been adapted into both a children’s opera and a film.
The story is about a boy named Max, who is being very badly behaved. Max’s mother sends him to bed without any supper as a punishment for his naughtiness. Enraged, Max dreams of sailing to the land of the Wild Things, where he plays, dances and climbs trees with the monsters he finds there. The Wild Things crown Max as their king, and they dance the night away. Though, through all the excitement, Max finds himself feeling sad and homesick, so he sails back home. Max awakes from his dream to find himself back in his room, with a bowl of hot soup waiting for him.

The brief we were set was to come up with a design and performance concept for an operatic adaptation of the story, which we were to interpret in our own way. We were tasked with designing for several of the wild things, as well as Max and his ‘Mama’.

My Concept:

There are several driving forces that propel the story of Maurice Sendak’s where the Wild Things are however, in my adaptation the main intended one is a child’s feeling of being misunderstood. Max has Asperger Syndrome in a time before many forms of autism were not yet diagnosed or widely understood- Max is simply viewed as the odd one out, or worse still, just plain odd. His excruciating experiences of both being misunderstood and misunderstanding those around him and those closest to him creates an inner narrative that is outwardly expressed throughout the story. Max has a meltdown in the early stages of the opera following an unfortunate misunderstanding between him and his mother. This meltdown prompts his over stimulated brain to have a vivid dream of ‘wild things’. When he eventually falls asleep having exhausted himself emotionally.

This dream is an insight into his mind and inner voice, showing the way he views the people in his life based off of his- mainly negative- experiences. The manifestations of the way Max sees family, teachers and friends take the form of Max’s wild things in his dream. The only difference being that in his dream Max is presented as equal to these people (or creatures) and they crown him as their king rather than judging and disregarding him as they would in his real life. Therefore, the feeling of being misunderstood is what generates the plot as Max’s drastic misunderstanding of people and their judgement of him is the spark that ignites this narrative.

Thematic Conclusions

There are a couple of messages that come across in the story, the main one being the idea that if people would only be kind, unjudging and do their best to understand others- the world would be a far less troubled place. In Max’s dream, the wild things do not judge him on his differences and he does not judge them on their bizarre appearances and as a result they get along harmoniously as equals. However, in his reality, the people who the wild things represent do judge him and are not always kind purely because he is different. This negativity causes bad relationships and painfully turbulent daily life. Kindness can and should overcome adversity.

The other conclusion that can be drawn from this production is that childhood is fragile and can be hugely damaging. A child’s mind is developing and is so susceptible to negative influence, particularly if the child is vulnerable to begin with- as children with autism are. The story hints that you should take care with how you speak to and treat children as their experiences of childhood can shape them, staying with them throughout adulthood. Children should be nurtured and cherished, not damaged before they even come to know the struggles of adult life.

Production objectives 

My main aim with this production is to create an opera that is successful on two levels; magical escapism that captivates younger audience members and a study of the emotions and experiences of a misunderstood child with Asperger Syndrome, that touches a nerve amongst adult audience members.

I want the design aesthetic and setting to transport and excite younger viewers in the same spirit that the original story does. I also want the adults to be captivated by the fantastical feeling of the production. However, I aim to form a connection on a deeper level to Max’s storyline. The autism references should not be overly explicit or obvious, just well researched and subtle, yet enough for more switched on viewers to pick up on.

Choice, period, style, form

The opera will be set in the early 1930s as it was a time when autism was not understood and not differentiated from schizophrenia, least of all recognized in children. This was a choice I made to draw emphasis on the feeling that Max is severely misunderstood- something that Sendak wanted to get across in his original book. This decade inspires the set design of the first couple of scenes, as Max’s home takes inspiration from interiors of the time. The period also inspires the costumes, most noticeably in the first scenes with Max and Mama but also in the wild things scenes as many of the wild things have 1930s clothing references in their costumes that hint at the characters in Max’s life that they represent. The Period will inspire the cut of the clothing, the colours, embellishments and some of the fabric choices too.

The setting of the opera will also be a huge influence on the design choices. The story is set in a rural village in the Highlands of Scotland. A decision I made for a couple of reasons: the more rural the setting, the more isolated and misunderstood max would be and also, the highlands is a naturally magical looking part of the world that could easily be exaggerated in child’s mind into a fantastical land where wild things could live. The setting of the Scottish Highlands also influences the costume as well as the set. Each wild thing takes inspiration from highland animals as well as foliage found in a Scottish silver birch woodland.

The weather and time of year will also have an effect on the design aesthetic. The opera is set in winter- a frosty, starry night in mid-November. The cold frosty element will be carried through the set design through metallic and shimmering elements as well as parts of the wild things costumes; horns and hoofs with frosted tips as if they’ve been out in the cold for a long time. This will hopefully add to the outlandish visual.

Translation of Design  

The translation of the story into the design of the opera will be very detailed, full of motifs and nuances that subtly indicate Max’s place within the lives of others. That being said the design aesthetic will be fantastical and magical across the costume and the set design. I want to take the negative feelings Max has and make them into something visually strange yet beautiful. For example, Max’s inability to read or understand the facial expressions of his family and teachers translates into the wild things having fantastical, highland animal inspired costumes relating to the animals Max likens them to, featuring exaggerated and enhanced facial features that represent how he misinterprets their emotion.

The whole design of the opera will be inspired by a starry night sky in mid- November. This generates the basis of the colour palette; midnight blues, silver, shimmering pearlescent whites and deep navy. This also creates a sense of magic and fascination that is pivotal to the success of the production as one that appeals to a wide range of ages.