Jennifer Zetlan in ‘Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt’ at the American Museum of Natural History. (Photo: AMNH/R. Mickens)
By April Stamm
Unexpectedly adorable, cleverly interactive and a rollicking good time, not phrases traditionally uttered about opera. However, On Site Opera’s production of Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt at the American Museum of Natural History is all those things and some more orthodox opera adulations as well.
Staged smack dab in the middle of the museum’s expansive collection in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt tells the story based on the real lives of Rhoda Knight (Jennifer Zetlan, Soprano) and her father, painter Charles R. Knight (Robert Orth, Baritone). Commissioned by the then president of the American Museum of Natural History, Dr. Henry Osborn (Patrick Cook, tenor), Knight’s paintings brought the fossil collection at the museum to life for visitors in the early 20th century, giving them a glimpse into the world of the dinosaurs hard to imagine by the layman simply looking at the artifacts.
Engaging the grade school set, the show puts the painter’s plucky eight-year-old daughter Rhoda in charge of coaxing the audience into a romp through the exhibition floor. The kids, with their parents in tow, explore the exhibit, finding clues to help them literally put together the pieces of a skeletal dinosaur sketch so Rhoda’s father can finish his painting.
Expertly sung by the cast of three and beautifully accompanied by a small orchestra to John Musto’s composition, Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt hits all of the appropriate marks for an opera with ease. What’s truly special about the production is its ability to effortlessly and imaginatively draw children (some still in arms) into the opera fold and enthrall them with the music, story and characters.
Playing to the tots imagination and thirst for knowledge, the company and production make full use of direct interaction between the singers and the kids, purposeful and high octane use of the entire space of the exhibit area and a playbill that includes not only information about opera, the full libretto (Eric Einhorn) and the history of the story for Rhoda and her father, but also a sketch just like Rhoda’s that the kids can complete as she does. The brief running time (approximately 25 minutes) and price (free with museum admission) make it very easy for parents to work into their trip to the museum.
A delightfully unexpected opera in an unconventional place performed in a very original fashion, Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt is jam-packed with everything you want in a show for kids, and all surrounded by the dinosaurs you know they already want to see!
Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt
Co-Produced by On Site Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Lyric Unlimited, and the Pittsburgh Opera
American Museum of Natural History
Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs
Central Park West and 79th Street, NYC
Free with Museum Admission but must call to reserve 212-769-5200
Through October 15
April Stamm is a theatre, food, and lifestyle journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Broadway Blog and EDGE Media Network and is a Chef Instructor at the International Culinary Center.