A monk at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Brother Paul Richards, started the St. John's Boys' Choir in 1981. Richards always wanted his choir to perform an opera. He learned one way not to do it when he took his singers to an opera featuring the Vienna Boys Choir.
"The boys played the roles of the girls, or the women. During the intermission a pack of older kids from the St. John's Boys' Choir came up and said to me, 'Don't you ever do that to us, don't you ever make us dress up like that,'" Richards said.
Richards figured out a solution a few years ago. He commissioned Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus to write an opera for boys' voices, and offered only one major guideline.
"It was very important to me that it not be cute. That it's not a cutesy little, children's thing," Richards said.
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What the choir got is not cutesy, but rather an opera dealing with the death of a child and the transformation of boys into men. It's called "The Star Gatherer."
The opera tells the story of Mega, a village baker who's lost a son to disease. Mega must find a star that's fallen in a forest and bake it in a cake. After boys from the town eat the cake, one of them is supposed to magically gain great power or knowledge. In the end the boys actually bake their own cake with a star, and give it to the baker mourning his son.
New York City-based librettist Gene Scheer, who wrote the words for "The Star Gatherer," admits an opera dealing with the death of a child written for a boys choir may be unusual, even though the issues aren't.
"I want something that's going to take its place alongside Menotti's 'Amahl and the Night Visitors' as a great piece of choral opera music. I really think we've got it."
"I think that kids now are asked to deal with all sorts of difficult aspects in their lives, and there's nothing more difficult than the loss of the child," Scheer said.
The topic of the opera is a challenge, but so was writing the music. St. Paul-based composer Stephen Paulus has hundreds of works to his name. But he had to work differently while writing an opera for a boys' choir. Paulus took care to not tax the choir's young voices. "Any conductor of a children's choir will tell you, you can spend so much time up in this range. But you've got to give the voice a rest if you're going to do very much of that, so I'm very conscious of that," Paulus said.
The boys themselves face several challenges in performing the opera. Typically you'd find the choir standing still among the pews of a church. But in "The Star Gatherer" these 9- to 14-year-olds are not only performing a 50-minute opera from memory, they're also moving around a stage, acting in costume, while accompanied by an orchestra.
The boys seem to relish the change of pace. And soprano Charlie Engelsgjerd, 12, sees a bigger accomplishment behind this work.
"I think this piece is something that is kind of a celebration of this choir being able to stay alive for 25 years. And I think in the years to come they might even do it again or do a second part about it," Engelsgjerd said.
Similar high hopes for this opera come from choir director Paul Richards. He sees it as more than just a new challenge for his boys' choir and hopes it adds to the material other young choirs perform.
"I want something that's going to take its place alongside Menotti's 'Amahl and the Night Visitors' as a great piece of choral opera music. I really think we've got it,"
The St. John's Boys' Choir will premiere the choral one-act opera "The Star Gatherer" Saturday, October 21 at 7:30pm on the St. John's University campus in Collegeville.