It's been more than a century since Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote "The Secret Garden," the classic children's novel whose themes strike such a chord: a child's abandonment and fortitude and the way she finds health and renewal by working the earth of, yes, a secret patch of garden. The story tiptoes toward the sunlight, as Mary Lennox -- an orphan, bratty and miserable -- is sent to live with a neglectful uncle on his estate in Yorkshire, England. Gradually, she discovers her own strength and happiness; she blooms along with her garden.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERAThis image created by Naomie Kremer is part of the set for the new "Secret Garden" production, being staged by Cal
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA This image created by Naomie Kremer is part of the set for the new "Secret Garden" production, being staged by Cal Performances and the San Francisco Opera.. (sfo)

Adapted through the decades for stage, screen and TV, this tale is now an opera, opening March 1 in Berkeley. A co-presentation of San Francisco Opera (which commissioned it) and Cal Performances, it's "a trip from darkness to light," says composer Nolan Gasser, also known as architect of the Music Genome Project, the technology behind Pandora, the Internet radio service. "And by the time you get to the end, we're swimming in a sea of consonance and melody." The story is "about as universal as it gets," he adds. "That's what has filled me and inspired me. And it's just proven to be such a fantastic source for an opera because, whether you're in China or San Francisco or on the Andromeda galaxy, any intelligent being would be inspired by the nature around them.


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Because we all come from it."

Author Burnett, who published the book in 1911, was a Christian Scientist who believed in the healing and redemptive powers of nature, of living things. She wrote from belief and experience, having suffered, as a girl, the sudden death of her father and her family's subsequent move from England to Tennessee, where an uncle failed to support the newcomers, who moved to a log cabin. Perhaps Burnett didn't mind. She loved fresh air, the great outdoors -- and gardens. And she wrote a story that "evokes horror and pity," in the manner of a Greek tragedy, says Carey Harrison, the opera's librettist. The son of British actor Rex Harrison -- he has the same godlike baritone speaking voice -- he notes that the story also contains elements of a classic Gothic novel: "a huge lonely house, a mystery hidden in the house."

Burnett imagines this chain of events: Born in India, where her British aristocrat parents die of cholera, Mary is sent to Yorkshire, where a practical and good-hearted servant, named Martha, incites her to quit her bedroom in the estate's vast, gloomy mansion and explore the outdoors. Mary stumbles on the lost key to the garden, which becomes the staging ground for her own redemption, as well as for a boy named Colin (the invalid) and her creepy Uncle Archibald Craven. Those three characters are "the most wounded" among a whole cast of characters, says Naomie Kremer, the Berkeley-based painter and multimedia artist who is the opera's visual designer, and the ones most open to the transformation that the garden represents. Crocuses bloom.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERAVisual and video artist Naomie Kremer’s scene for "Secret Garden" depicts Craven’s return to a thriving garden.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA Visual and video artist Naomie Kremer's scene for "Secret Garden" depicts Craven's return to a thriving garden. ( sfo )
Robins take wing, as does life. The Gothic gloom is dispelled.

'Cosmic' influences

Kremer's digitally projected images -- of the mysterious moors surrounding the estate; of the 100-room mansion; of the misty garden coming into glorious bloom -- will be the sets for this family-oriented production. When Mary first enters the garden, she will move through a winter scene composed of Kremer's own photographic images, shot in gardens in Yorkshire, Berkeley, New York's Central Park and the Alhambra, in Granada, Spain. The images, here and elsewhere in the production, are multilayered and manipulated to create effects that Kremer describes as naturalistic but "enhanced, slightly surreal," and with a bit of motion to them, evoking "a shadow or the shudder of a leaf, echoing the real world."

The production is the result of its own chain of events. In 2009, through a mutual acquaintance, Gasser met San Francisco Opera's general director, David Gockley, a famous commissioner of new works. Gasser gave Gockley a CD of his orchestral compositions -- one was "Cosmic Reflection," performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, with narration by Harrison -- and conversations began about a collaboration. Gasser recruited Harrison, the author of 16 novels and 35 stage plays, and the two suggested various candidates for adaptation: tales by Hans Christian Andersen, even Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," in which the protagonist turns into an insect. "We were coming from the angle that kids love bugs," Gasser explains, a little sheepishly. "But it ends so darkly."

Always "at the top of the list" was "The Secret Garden," and Gockley gave the go-ahead in November 2010. What does the music sound like? This writer attended an early rehearsal and was struck by an anthemlike piece in the opera's prologue; it carried musical-theater echoes of Stephen Sondheim as well as the rolling, modal language of jazz pianist McCoy Tyner. Gasser is an eclectic. He plays Led Zeppelin tunes as a keyboardist in a rock band. A devotee of Josquin des Pres, the Renaissance composer, he used to teach medieval-Renaissance music history at Stanford University as an adjunct professor. His face flushes red with excitement when he talks about his love for Mozart operas, he enjoys Puccini (his wife is "a Puccini maniac"), and he describes his own music as deploying a "free and flexible" harmonic language "with a certain roughness. ... But I'm never afraid to be consonant."

'Get your hands dirty'

Starting March 1, we'll see how well this secret language reflects "The Secret Garden." In the meantime, the project's key collaborators seem jazzed. Stage director Jose Maria Condemi finds pure uplift in the story's message: "If you get your hands dirty, literally, things get better. The life force is activated." And Harrison, whose Aunt Irene hosted a BBC radio show about opera when he was a boy, taking him and his cousins countless times to productions at Covent Garden in London, seems wondrous: "At this late stage of life, to have a hand extended from the door of opera and to be invited in!" he says. The sentence trails off, happily.

Happy, too, is soprano Sarah Shafer, 24, who sings the role of Mary. When she was a child, her father read "The Secret Garden" to her and her sisters, Grace and Elizabeth. "I just remember kind of the wonder of it, loving it," she says. Now a student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, she shares an apartment with Elizabeth, also a musician. "And when I told her I got this role, she just screamed, and we danced around the room. I kind of look at it as a dream role, having grown up with the story."

She mentions a favorite musical number, sung by Mary and a boy named Dickon, who are in the garden: "It's just at the cusp of spring, and they're beginning to plant things. And the way Nolan has set it, it's a jig, this rollicking 12/8 joyful thing, free and bright. You sense Mary's happiness. In that scene, she says she's so happy she can scarcely breathe."

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/richardscheinin.

'The Secret Garden'

Opera by Nolan Gasser and Carey
Harrison; adapted from the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett
When: March 1, 2, 3, 9 and 10
Where: Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley
Tickets: $15-$80; 415-864-3330, 510-642-9988, www.sfopera.com, www.calperformances.org