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Composed: 1979-1983
Length: c. 40 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), oboe, English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd = E-flat clarinet), bassoon, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trombones, percussion (anvils, balloon with pin, bass drum, claves, clogs, cowbells, flexatone, glockenspiel, gong, maracas, sizzle cymbals, spring coil, suspended cymbals, tambourine, tam-tam, temple blocks, tenor drum, tom-toms, triangles, tubular bells, vibraslap, vibraphone, whip, wind machine, and xylophone), piano (four-hands), harp, strings, and vocal soloists
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

In 1970, Oliver Knussen was awarded the first of three fellowships to the Tanglewood Music Center, where he spent several summers studying with Gunther Schuller. (He later returned as head of contemporary music activities from 1986 to 1993.) It was at Tanglewood that the illustrator Mike Marshall introduced Knussen to Maurice Sendak, sowing the seeds for Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!, the two one-act operas Knussen composed in the 1980s based on books by Sendak, with librettos by the beloved American author and artist. (Where the Wild Things Are is dedicated to Marshall.)

The Opéra National in Brussels commissioned Where the Wild Things Are in 1979, UNESCO’s International Year of the Child, and premiered an early version of the opera the following year. The final version was premiered by Glyndebourne Touring Opera at the National Theatre in London in 1984 with the composer conducting, and has since become almost a repertory work, with numerous international stagings and several recordings.

Though colorfully scored and eminently lively, this “fantasy opera in nine scenes” is not “children’s music” in the sense of anything simplified in concept or execution. Knussen uses tetrachords (“linked into octatonic chains,” for the technically inclined) as the basis of his taut harmonic organization, in which quotations or allusions to music by Mussorgsky, Debussy, Berg, Britten, Henze, Ravel, Stravinsky, Mahler, and others emerge vividly, as well as suggestions of ragtime, barbershop, and 12-tone techniques.

The short Overture begins as a matter of expectant anticipation, a thing of shimmering, slowly swelling chords. It bursts with energy though, as it introduces the first scene, where Max is playing in the hall outside his room. This Scherzino is a bravura entrance aria as Max identifies himself verbally and musically. Dressed in a white wolf suit, he menaces his toys and after hanging his teddy bear, bursts out with a howl of “Vilda chai, ah mi mah mee ooh,” a part Yiddish, part invented Maxian cry that will return. In the second scene (still in the hall), an ominous shadow falls over Max, which turns out to be cast by his mother and her old vacuum machine. Max remains in his wolf king character, including his “Vilda chai” (wild thing) war cry, resisting his mother’s attempts to calm him. Max has been complaining about how hungry he is, but after continuing to act out, he is sent to bed without his supper. The scene ends with an orchestral transition, as Max wrestles the vacuum and is pushed into his bedroom.

Sulking alone in his room in Scene 3, Max imagines himself as the wolf king waiting in his lair for nightfall, when the Wild Things would leap upon the moon, lulling himself with a gently repeated “And catch it and cook it and keep it hot,” accompanied by the Debussy reference in the flutes and clarinets. The orchestra depicts the transformation of his room into a forest, and then a jaunty ragtime clarinet introduces his second arietta in which he fantasizes about his revenge upon the Mama Wolf and catching the moon, with more “Vilda chai” cries. Water appears and a little boat, which Max enters and begins rowing. The orchestral First Sea Interlude presents a “pageant of different lights and times of day,” suggesting the passage of much time. A sea monster Wild Thing rears up from now turbulent waters but is quelled by Max, who eventually arrives at an island.

When Max lands on the island in Scene 4, he quickly becomes aware of an ominous background humming, which becomes a roaring as the awakened Wild Things hurtle from a cave. They scream abuse at Max in their own language, mostly nonsense syllables but again with Yiddish elements. “I wanted the Wild Things to sound like they come out of a Mussorgsky opera and to sound like they are saying something,” Sendak said, “but they are saying terrible things in Yiddish, terrible things, the kind of things my parents said to me.” Max howls his “Vilda chai” motif, silencing the Wild Things, whom he controls with a “magic stare.” In the fifth scene, the thoroughly cowed Wild Things crown Max as their king, with musical allusions to the coronation scene in Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov. In celebration, Max initiates the Wild Rumpus (Scene 6), a jubilant orchestral orgy marked “Tempo di Valse-Mazurka,” with a lighter, softer central section where Max and the Wild Things become fascinated by the moon. Max abruptly breaks off the dance, however, and sends the Wild Things to bed without their supper.

Scene 7 is a wistful, floating aria for Max as he dreams of home, Mama, and a hot supper. The Wild Things awake in the following scene, and in barbershop close harmony beg Max to stay. They explode in rage, however, as Max casts off in his boat, reversing his arrival at the island in the Second Sea Interlude, with his mother’s humming voice and the smell of food ultimately drawing him home.

The brief, serene final scene finds Max back in his room, with a tray of food on a table. He investigates, and his last words – and the last notes of the opera – are the simple, “It’s hot.”

Sendak was closely involved in this production, dying May 8, 2012, just a month before its premiere at the Aldeburgh Festival. Netia Jones included this tribute in the Aldeburgh program book: “This production would not have been possible without the collaboration, support, and generosity of Maurice Sendak. His loss in the middle of our project is a very great sadness, and we dedicate this performance to him, with love and admiration.”

— John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.