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How The Secret Garden Redeemed My Lit-Challenged Childhood

Nan Wiener | March 7, 2013 | Story Galleries and Performance

There are many good things about The Secret Garden, the opera by local composer Nolan Gasser that runs this weekend at Zellerbach Hall after premiering there a week ago. But for me, the best part is that it forced me to fill a gap that no young girl—or boy—should have in their childhood: the reading of the book. The production is very evocative—of childhood trauma, of the healing power of nature, of magical forest creatures that befriend little girls—but it left me wanting to know more. So I pulled out the book that just about everyone I know has read and raved about but that somehow passed me by.

Boy did Frances Hodgson Burnett know kids. Her depiction of two damaged children who struggle to see which one can out-tantrum the other is so psychologically rich that it almost hurts to read. (The book should be required reading for all over-indulgent parents.) And she creates an almost Oz-like sense of wonder about the natural world, complete with a character who seems more forest elf than child (pictured above with the two other main characters).

The triumph of the opera is that it manages to capture a bit of both these imaginative realms, thanks in part to a series of wonderful video projections that convey the physical details of the story, from the lonely expanse of the English moors, where it takes place, to the enchanting robin in the garden who helps charm the heroine out of her cranky shell. The final scene, in which the long-neglected garden finally flowers and—spoiler alert—the two damaged children also achieve a kind of rebirth, is a gorgeous explosion of color.

Will kids enjoy this? My bet is that anyone who’s read the book will get a kick out of spotting familiar moments, but that those who haven’t might just feel like they’re, well, at the opera. Luckily, the same age restrictions don’t apply to the book itself. You’ll love it whether you’re six or 60.

The Secret Garden runs from this Friday night through a Sunday matinee at Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley.

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