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Section: Classical music
Section: Houston Lifestyle & Features

Jan. 14, 2005, 10:55PM

'Princess and the Pea' composer knows how to draw young audiences

Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

She's the queen of kids opera in Houston.

Mary Carol Warwick, who trained as an opera composer at the University of Houston, keeps the city's children entertained with snappy works like The Princess and the Pea. It opens Tuesday in a production by Houston Grand Opera's Opera to Go! education ensemble.

When: 9:30 and 11:15 a.m. Tuesday-Friday and Jan. 25-28
Where: Heinen Theater, Houston Community College central campus, 3517 Austin
Tickets: $4 (children and adults); 713-546-0230

It's her sixth work for HGO and the company's 32nd premiere. Her earlier works rotate merrily through the Opera to Go! schedule.

"It's a Mary Carol year," says Gary Gibbs, HGO's director of education and outreach. Opera to Go! is also presenting Warwick's The Velveteen Rabbit and the bilingual Cinderella in Spain this season.

"For children and families, her pieces are marvelous," Gibbs says. "She's really good at telling the story."

Warwick came to Houston in 1981 to study with the great American opera composer Carlisle Floyd at UH.

She wanted to write an opera to complete her doctorate at Florida State University — but, she says, her professors realized they didn't have the experience to supervise her. So they sent her to Floyd, who had taught at the Florida school before moving to Houston to co-found, with David Gockley, the Houston Grand Opera Studio.

"I have been here ever since," Warwick says.

With closed eyes

Her first work for HGO, The King Stag, was a last-minute job. Another composer had been given the libretto, by Houstonian Kate Pogue, but hadn't started on the music, Warwick says.

"The rehearsals were scheduled, but there was no opera. I wrote it in four weeks. Carlisle was raising one eyebrow and" — she mixes metaphors — "using the other hand to put the brakes on."

It takes two years to write an opera, he told her. She would end up with only a rough draft.

"But I did it anyway. I didn't know what I was getting into."

Like dealing with children's attention spans.

"You can't write Madame Butterfly, going on for 10 minutes, for children. They'll be squirming in their seats and throwing spitballs."

The King Stag was an inauspicious start. She didn't know how to make the unfamiliar story accessible to children, she says.

Carlos Javier Sanchez: Chronicle
Opera composer Mary Carol Warwick says being "childlike" has given her an advantage in creating works for children. "I'm optimistic. I like happy endings. I'm overcome when everybody works for the greater good," she says.

"I am not a mother and have never been a mother and have never wanted to be a mother. I had no ongoing adventure with children to guide me."

But she had one advantage, she thinks.

"I'm very childlike. I'm optimistic. I like happy endings. I'm overcome when everybody works for the greater good. I like animals. Things like that."

Gibbs uses an unconventional approach to new works.

"Normally, a composer comes to us with an idea, but usually I go to her and say, 'This is the story, and this is the way I want it to sound.' "

For The Princess and the Pea, Gibbs asked for a comic opera in the style of Rossini and Gilbert & Sullivan, Warwick says.

The libretto is by Mary Ann Pendino, a Houston actress, singer and composer.

"Her take on the fairy tale is not what anyone will expect," Warwick says. "It's Zena, the Warrior Princess meets a wimpy prince dominated by an overbearing mother."

Warwick does grown-up music, too. For Houston's Greenbriar Consortium, she's composed a work using a local author's rewriting of the same poems Vivaldi used for The Four Seasons.

"I've done a twisted, bizarre version of that for violin, viola, singer and confused piano," she laughs.

She also wrote a major orchestral piece to accompany Houston's Fly Dance Company. She's been music director for shows at Houston theaters, including Theater LaB, where she'll do a piece in February.

And, she teaches at the Houston Community College Central College where she is the assistant chair of the music department.

Through the years, Warwick has learned the tricks needed for a good children's opera.

Keep the slow, "love stuff" short. Else, "the kids will begin to imitate it. Then, you're in trouble."

A ogre or monster helps: "Kids love to be scared."

Shows need "constant surprises, musically or otherwise." In The Princess and the Pea, a kazoo will announce the Prince every time he comes on stage.

"I love that nasty, slappy sound," she says.

She hopes kids get the subtle messages woven through her operas, like the fact that the Princess is "a woman who is a strong, positive person and not the princess who falls when being chased and has to be rescued by the prince."

And, she'll be happy if people leave singing her tunes. "I go away singing my tunes all the time."

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