When Kate DiCamillo's novel for young readers, "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane," was published in 2006, a professor she knew from college told her, "It's a book of big, operatic emotions. There are so many highs and lows."
"It's funny that you would say 'operatic,' because I've had this outrageous hope that someday the rabbit's story might be sung," replied DiCamillo, a two-time Newbery Medal-winning author who has lived in Minneapolis since 1994.
That someday has at last arrived. Minnesota Opera will premiere Paola Prestini's opera, "Edward Tulane," at St. Paul's Ordway Music Theater this weekend in a production that's made a miraculous journey of its own. Originally slated for March 2020, it was halted days before its opening when the pandemic abruptly canceled all live performances in the Twin Cities.
DiCamillo's book is about a bond between a child and her china rabbit (Edward Tulane), what happens when they become separated, the journey that Edward travels, and, finally, their reunion. Such a structure parallels the experience of the artists creating this new opera. Almost all of them are returning to the production — a rarity for works interrupted by the pandemic — and we asked some of them about their own journey with this opera.
"When [then-Minnesota Opera Artistic Director] Dale Johnson first sent me 'Edward Tulane' in January 2016, my son was 7, the perfect age for the book," said composer Prestini, who created the opera with librettist Mark Campbell. "I relished setting [to music] something that brought him such joy. As the years have passed, I realize even more how tender and deep the work is."
She finds the book's messages timeless and ageless, and ones that mean something unique in different stages of life.
"Even in your most downtrodden times, if you keep hope, something can always change, and eventually you understand deeper meaning behind your adventures," Prestini said.
Tenor Jack Swanson, who's making his Minnesota Opera debut in the title role, also learned valuable lessons from the story.
"Every person you meet comes from a different place, a different upbringing, different means," said Swanson, a Stillwater native with a blossoming international opera career. "They are all at a different place in life, so meet them with kindness, open ears and an open heart. Love is truly what brings us all together, no matter our differences!"
The really powerful bond, in opera as in life, is with the people, lighting designer Marcus Doshi said.
"You love the people you're in a room with, and this is a room of people that I really want to be in. … There's a whole way of interacting and growing closer to the piece through the process of working and having fun together," Doshi said.
"Edward Tulane" was to open on March 21, 2020. The cast and crew learned a week before that date the production would have to be postponed because of the pandemic.
"It was devastating to arrive at the final room run and learn that we would not be performing for the foreseeable future," said baritone Nicholas Davis, who sings three roles in the production.
The shutdown was artistically, professionally and personally challenging.
"The intensity and unknown nature of it all was numbing," Prestini said. "The hard part was the financial ramifications. Every artist had to learn how to survive in harsh conditions. Which is saying something, as being an artist is already an unstable reality."
Swanson repeatedly turned to the story of "Edward Tulane," finding comfort and reassurance in the story's lessons.
"Edward never struggled with COVID-19, but he had a very tumultuous road that brought him to humble himself, look outwardly, and recognize that love and perseverance are the answers to most of life's woes," he said.
Like many, Doshi used the time away to reassess his priorities. Meanwhile, Prestini helped create a digital platform for artists through the Brooklyn-based new music presenter she helped found, National Sawdust. Swanson and Davis also became more active in the online world as performers.
"The silver lining is I got to make more edits, and improve on the piece," Prestini said. "So what you are hearing now is truly a refined, loved-through and mended work, just like our Edward."
"As soon as we got the opera back on its feet, it felt like I was transported through time," Swanson said. "Everything flooded back. The music, the words and the staging were as clear as the last day we had left it in 2020."
Davis agreed, adding, "Returning to 'Tulane' felt like returning to an old friend that left you wounded, but upon seeing them again, you run into their arms full of joy, remembering the good times."
Prestini appreciates the talents of the team even more now.
"I think the themes of loneliness and reinvention and home are informed by this time we've all endured apart," she said.
DiCamillo said she is even more thrilled this time around, too.
"'Edward' is a story about grieving and waiting and hoping. It's moving to think of people getting to go on this journey with Edward now."
One of the book's most enduring messages is grace.
"We are still lovable even with our cracks and chips, as Edward is toward the end of the opera," Prestini said. "And it's this level of empathy we need to have toward others and ourselves that allows us to see the beauty in humanity and imperfection."
Minnesota Opera's 'Edward Tulane'
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13 and Oct. 15, 2 p.m. Oct. 16.
Where: Ordway Music Theater, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.
Tickets: $25-$237, available at 612-333-6669 or mnopera.org.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at email@example.com.