Pandemic-delayed 'Edward Tulane' opera premieres, feeling stronger

A man lays with a rabbit
Minnesotan Jack Swanson sings the title role in the Minnesota Opera production of “Edward Tulane” based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo. Unlike the rabbit in this shot Edward Tulane is a ceramic rabbit who is forced on an epic journey as he looks for his lost first love.
Photo by Darrin Kamnetz

Two-and-a-half years ago, the challenges facing the creative team behind "Edward Tulane" were how to transform a story about a ceramic toy rabbit into a living breathing show.

"It's tricky material for an opera," librettist Mark Campbell said back in 2020. He wrote the words for "Silent Night," "The Shining" and a host of other Minnesota Opera commissions. But adapting a young adult novel — Kate DiCamillo's "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" — was something new.

"Because you have to balance a certain amount of whimsy, and humor, with a very serious subject, which is someone looking for love. This someone happens to be a stuffed rabbit,” he said.

Tulane Rehearsal: Singers rehearse “Edward Tulane” at the Minnesota Opera.
Tulane Rehearsal: Singers rehearse “Edward Tulane” at the Minnesota Opera center in Minneapolis in February 2020. Some scenery and costumes can be seen in the background including a jellyfish for an undersea scene.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

The Minnesota Opera’s “Edward Tulane” opens this weekend at the Ordway Music Theater in St. Paul.

Edward is a beloved toy of a young girl. One day she loses him and he's plunged into a series of misadventures. He despairs of ever finding love again. He's stolen, abandoned in a junkyard, faces down a rat, and even drops to the bottom of the sea.

“So it is done, at the bottom of the ocean!“ sings the despondent Edward. “No deeds, no fame, no glory!”

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A woman in black looks to the left
Composer Paola Prestini says the pandemic delay of the premiere of “Edward Tulane” was a shock, but the two and a half years passed since it was originally due to open have allowed for it to become a fuller, deeper production.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Opera

Composer Paola Prestini admits that Edward initially is kind of a pain.

"He's definitely full of himself. And he, he hasn't — you know, he's still very much on the surface of who he is. And each of these adventures help him kind of find his depth. But he's definitely melodramatic,” she said.

That includes Edward’s repeated refrain in the opera: “And so it ends...”

But on March 13, 2020, it did seem to end. Eight days before opening, COVID stopped Edward Tulane in his tracks. Looking back, DiCamillo says it was head-spinning.

"It itself was an operatic moment, right?” she said. “For everything that we read, and everything that we know, none of us thought that it would happen that way. And what it did was, you realize anything can happen. Anything."

DiCamillo says she obsessed about all the beautiful costumes created for the production, just waiting.

A woman wearing a scarf sitting in a staircase.
Kate DiCamillo's book "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" has long been a fan favorite. Now the novel about the adventures of a full-of-himself ceramic rabbit is the basis for a new Minnesota Opera commission.
Catherine Smith | Courtesy of Candlewick Press

Like many performing organizations the Minnesota Opera pivoted. It offered online productions, and some socially distanced events including an outdoor show at the Saint Paul Saints’ CHS Field. Edward Tulane briefly stuck out his nose when the Opera streamed a choral suite of selections from the production in December 2021.

Prestini worked on that adaptation and has continued to refine the production as the actual world premiere approaches. She believes the extra time for rehearsal and reworking has added new depth to the production.

"Because we learned so much, and we were able to apply what we learned, it almost feels like a second staging,” she said. “In that there's a confidence and a kind of understanding of the work that we just — we were gifted, to be honest, if you have to look at silver linings."

Prestini is also glad that the Opera brought back the original singers from early 2020. She says the way they have absorbed the nuances of the opera also adds to the production.

“And that, you know, that comes through because there's an ownership there,” she said.

She's excited about the show, but given the shock of the sudden shutdown in 2020 she's feeling nervous as opening night approaches.

DiCamillo has been an observer from afar. Or at least from across town. She says she doesn't know how to make an opera, so it's best she just keep far away. But she says post-pandemic, she believes Edward Tulane's story may have become more powerful.

"It's so much a story of waiting and being powerless. Because Edward is, you know, a rabbit made of china. He's unable to move, he's unable to talk. He has no agency. And so it seems fitting, this long delay. And I think that it makes it even more emotionally resonant, at least for me,” she said.

The question for any new opera is whether it has a future. The “Edward Tulane” crew hope it will fill a void — a modern opera truly enjoyed by young and old.

"We don't have, in the opera repertoire, many operas that whole families can go see together,” said Campbell, the librettist. “A lot of opera companies will program musicals, like “Oklahoma,” or “Showboat,” so that families can come to the opera house. I'm tired of that. I want them to come to real operas.”