San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley approached Gasser in 2010 with an “intriguing invitation,” as Gasser put it: to write a family opera. “I was immediately captivated by the idea,” said Gasser, “seeing it as a wonderful opportunity to reach a wide and enthusiastic audience of both kids and adults.” Gasser had collaborated with Harrison previously on the narrated symphony, Cosmic Reflection. “Carey and I spent several weeks scouring potential literary sources for the opera,” continued Gasser, “though we quickly placed Secret Garden as a top choice. Our initial hunch was that David might negate this choice given the earlier success of the Broadway musical adaptation. We submitted a list of five or six choices and were delighted to hear that David had selected The Secret Garden.”

The project presented Harrison with the opportunity to revisit a story he had known for years. “Like so many people on both sides of the Atlantic,” he told us, “I've known and loved The Secret Garden since childhood. I'm British-born, but have spent a majority of my working life in the U.S. Burnett's immortal classic speaks to my roots in the North of England, the book's chosen setting. It is a book that charms every generation of children, and retains its fascination for adults. It's perhaps the most inspiring and liberating work in the long history of Gothic literature.”

Gasser’s relationship to the story came later in life. “Although I had been aware of the appeal of Burnett’s novel, I only became familiar with it when my daughter, Camille, read it when she was nine—that is, around Mary’s age in the book. Camille’s obsession with the story struck me at the time, which extended to our watching the 1993 film adaptation. But it was only after David selected it as our libretto source that I truly acquainted myself with the novel, beginning with a thorough and passionate reading—all the while taking mental notes of how various sections could be set. Burnett produced a work of such beauty and heartfelt emotional drama, a timeless paean to the value of friendship and the healing power of nature. Since my own reading, the novel has become a family treasure, and it’s an ideal operatic source for all ages.”

Composer Nolan Gasser (left) and librettist Carey Harrison (right)

The plot of The Secret Garden centers on Mary, a privileged but spoiled and ill-tempered girl whose parents die. She is sent to live with her uncle and through her friendship with his servants discovers the garden his wife kept before she died. One of the story’s themes, a common one in children’s literature, is abandonment by parents or the other adults. The creators pondered this idea. “This is such a profound question,” said Harrison. “It speaks to what it is that makes words so life-saving for writers, when they themselves are children. Regardless of actual abandonment, I think that children who feel themselves to be outsiders are especially drawn to stories in search of an echo of their own experience. Since no childhood can supply everything a child wants or imagines he or she is entitled to, all children experience to some degree what it is to be excluded. In literature the theme of solitude rekindles the child in us all.”
“My sense is that the prevalence of this device speaks both to historical and aesthetic-psychological factors,” said Gasser. “In earlier times such as that of Burnett, the death of one or both parents during childhood was fairly commonplace; indeed, the author lost her father at age three and her mother at age twenty. Equally, if not more significant, I assume, is the theme’s dramatic utility: the hero’s journey is one where hardship is overcome, where strength and insight are acquired despite the trials of an inattentive or deceased parent, as is the case here for both Mary and Colin. Burnett was a Christian Scientist, a belief system that stresses the healing and essential power of nature, which is gained particularly by working with the soil. As such, a premise of parental abandonment allowed the author to more palpably demonstrate Mother Nature’s ‘miraculous’ powers to heal and embolden the damaged souls of Mary and Colin, as well as that of Mr. Craven.”

An author of more than forty plays, this is Harrison’s first encounter with writing an opera. “My words have been set to music before, but never on as glorious a scale,” he said. “I was fortunate to be raised by opera lovers, so this translation of a novel into a libretto is a new and thrilling challenge. My chief concern was how to write the kind of lyrics that would provide Nolan with the most congenial material. Should they be more prosaic or less? More poetic or less? By sheer good fortune and thanks to Nolan's versatility, we turned out to be of one mind. This has been a joy and still seems like a minor miracle.”

First Edition of The Secret Garden

“Carey and my aspirations for Secret Garden are many and admittedly grand,” said Gasser. “The story is so rich and so beloved by folks of all generations, that creating an operatic adaptation is an extraordinary creative opportunity. Above all, we hope to move and entertain our audience with a musical setting that follows the varied emotional trajectory of the story, from bright and exotic to frightful and lonely; from light and whimsical to stubborn and angry; from concerned and hopeful to joyful and ecstatic. Indeed, the overall arc of the story is a gradual, though somewhat jagged, shift from dark to light, and getting the pace just right has been a major concern of mine. There are in fact two principal tales of struggle and redemption in Secret Garden—first that of Mary, and then that of Colin; both, of course, are made possible through the power of nature, as well as through the friendships that miraculously enter the lives of these challenged children. But, indeed, all the other characters as well—Mr. Craven, Ben the gardener, Mrs. Medlock, and even Dickon, Martha, and Susan Sowerby—are remedied by the power of the secret garden; and it is our sincere hope that the audience will likewise experience this sense of rejuvenation through the course of the opera. One of my aesthetic ‘models’ in setting Secret Garden is the success of those great Pixar films, where adults and children are each able to experience or ‘get’ aspects that the other may not, or perhaps may in a somewhat different manner. Setting Secret Garden has been a labor of love for both Carey and myself, and I hope this is communicated to our audience.”