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Mo Willems' bossy Pigeon makes his operatic debut

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This month marks 20 years since Mo Willems published his first picture book, "Don't Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus!" It has sold more than 6 million copies and received a Caldecott honor. But this past weekend, readers got to see and hear a brand-new side of the bossy bird. As NPR's Isabella Gomez Sarmiento reports, The Pigeon made his operatic debut at Washington's Kennedy Center.

ISABELLA GOMEZ SARMIENTO, BYLINE: Mo Willems says most of the characters in his children's books are born in an idea garden. He spends years thinking about them, developing them, figuring out the stories they'll be a part of.

MO WILLEMS: The Pigeon was not that. The Pigeon showed up one day while I was trying to write a great picture book - this before I had ever been published - and The Pigeon said, don't. Don't write this. It's not any good. You should write about me.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: "Don't Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus!" was about a pigeon - last name - Pigeon, first name - The - who asks, begs, demands to get a chance to drive a bus while the driver is on break. Twenty years on, Willems has taken The Pigeon to school, to ride a roller coaster and, now, to the opera.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: (Singing, inaudible).

WILLEMS: I know nothing about opera, and that made it really compelling. And then I discovered that opera and picture books are both about very big emotions.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Big emotions like love...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing) Knuffle bunny, my number one-y (ph), since I was one-y...

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: ...Disgust...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #3: (Singing, inaudible).

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: ...And sadness.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #4: (Singing) The ice cream truck's broken...

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: The performance, titled "The Ice Cream Truck Is Broken! & Other Emotional Arias," premiered over the weekend. It was written in collaboration with singer Renee Fleming.

RENEE FLEMING: Well, we're definitely not used to this laughter. We're not used to laughter at all, really. There are comedies in opera, but they haven't really been in my repertoire so much.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Both Willems and Fleming stressed that they really wanted kids and parents to have fun. One way to do that is to address the audience directly. At one point, multiple pigeons ask...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: So can we stay up late?

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing, inaudible).

BETSY KLOSSEN: I think the most fun thing was when we actually got to sing and tell the pigeon, no, no, no, no, no.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: That's Betsy Klossen, who attended the show with her nieces.

KLOSSEN: For us to be able to be part of a brand-new world premiere opera was very exciting.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Carlos Simon composed The Pigeon's aria.

CARLOS SIMON: With classical music, it can be this element of, like, I am singing the song. you will not clap. You will not speak or you not do anything. You know, these rules that have become part of the genre - well, we want to kind of break those down.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: That way, they also got to emphasize The Pigeon's persuasive skills, which he's been sharpening for two decades now. I asked Mo Willems if he thinks The Pigeon has grown up at all during that time.

WILLEMS: I like how determined The Pigeon is, and I think that maybe I see The Pigeon now as more determined than obnoxious, so maybe I'm growing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) A sleepy party, a snore-y (ph), snore-y, sleepy party.

GOMEZ SARMIENTO: Isabella Gomez Sarmiento, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: (Singing) A sleepy party...

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Singing) ...Where every dream seems so surreal.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: (Singing) A sleepy party...

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #3: (Singing)...Filled with cobwebs everywhere.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) We love how this dreamy dream (inaudible)... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is an assistant producer with Weekend Edition.