The Story of Opal is Gale Fury Childs’ two-act adaptation of Opal Whiteley’s The Story of Opal (The Journal of an Understanding Heart). Opal Whiteley spent her adolescent years in a Pacific Northwest logging town. Between her sixth and seventh year of childhood, she kept a diary of her trips through the woods of Cottage Grove in Oregon. However, it was not until she was twenty-three in 1920 that these diary entries were first published in the Atlantic Journal. There has been much controversy about the journal over the years. Some accuse Opal of fabricating the stories just before they were released in 1920. Opal claims they were transcribed from notes taken in colored pencil on scraps of paper that were stored in a log. In her book, Opal says that fairies left her the pencils. Opal also believed she was actually a French princess who had been kidnapped and given a drowned girl’s identity. Her book has French phrases scattered throughout it. She died at the age of 95 in 1992 in a mental hospital in London. Her burial name was HRH Françoise Marie de Bourbon-Orléans. Given the nature of her diaries, her exceptional skills in particular areas, and her total lack of other skills, some have theorized that she may have had autism.
The language in The Story of Opal is poetic and dreamy. In the following excerpt, Opal describes the voices of nature:
As I did go, I did have hearing of many voices. They were the voices of earth glad for the spring. They did say what they had to say in the growing grass and in the leaves growing out from tips of branches. The birds did have knowing, and sang what the grasses and leaves did say of the gladness of living.” In this excerpt, she describes the music of the earth: “I lay my ear close to the earth where the grasses grew close together. I did listen. The wind made ripples on the grass as it went over. There were voices from out the earth. And the things of their saying were the things of gladness of growing. And there was music. And in the music there was sky-twinkles and earth-tinkles.” Her characters were primarily animals, nature, and mysticism and given names from classical literature as evidenced in this passage, "I sit here on the doorstep, printing this on the wrapping paper Sadie McKibben gave me... By the step is Brave Horatius. At my feet is [the mouse] Thomas Chatterton Jupiter Zeus. I hear songs- lullaby songs of the trees. … I am happy, listening to the twilight music of God's good world. I'm real glad I'm alive.
This adaptation actually has five Opals, each performing an aspect of her personality and other characters. The set is abstract and comprised primarily of curtains and small properties. The environment is established with lighting, music, and environmental sounds. A simple surround-sound system with three stereo pairs (stage, front, and rear) pieced together from the theatre's aging and existing sound equipment provides ample surround-sound possibilities. The challenge was to create the voices and sounds of nature as Opal describes them in her journal.
The first part of this mix serves as overture and the second half underscores the first presentation of the character of Opal. The goal for the overture was to relay the feeling of wind, warmth, and the magic of living. The second half is a deconstruction of the first and features a harmonium. This deconstruction pairs the orchestral sound down to something more earthy and grounded. Superimposed under all of this is a gentle, warm wind engineered to surround the audience. The Opals say, "I did have hearing of many voices... they were the voices of the earth, glad for the summer." See page 5 in the script above.
Scene 5 is called "Earth Songs". The script states, "(Opal 1 is under the bench writing in her diary as the ensemble gathers around her) Opal 3: The creek that does go by our house is always bringing songs from the hills. Opal 3: Morning is glad on the hills. Opal 2: The sky sings in blue tones. Opal 2: The earth sings in green. Opal 3: Earth voices are glad voices." This composition is a mix of the "voices" of the creek, sky, and earth. To create these sounds, output of music sequencing software is blended with sound recordings.
The instruments and musical phrases in this piece represent Brave Horatio, Opal's dog, Lars Porsena of Clusium, her crow friend, and Thomas Chatterton Jupiter Zeus, Opal's "most velvety" wood rat. The bulk of the first act portrays Opal's explorations in the woods and six of these pieces underscore these particular sections of action. The emotional quality varies with the subtext of the accompanying dialogue. These pieces are combined into one piece in this example.
Opal says that her journal was written on scraps of paper in colored pencil provided by fairies. She also says that no one knows of these fairies except for one person, the Man Who Wears Grey Neckties and is Kind to Mice. Together, the man and Opal make "fern wishes" to the fairies and then plant the fern at a particular log. Opal says this offering causes the fairies to leave the pencils. The fairy sounds are made by combining my voice with recordings of women and children laughing. Transposition software is used to make the voices sound smaller and higher. Finally, these voices are "sprinkled" with wind chimes and metal tinkling sounds.
Opal describes plants by assigning them human qualities and names. She mentions a particular tree she named Michael Angelo Sanzio Raphael and describes him as "a grand fir tree with an understanding soul." A goal for this section of the play is to create a cacophony of trees communicating with each other. In this mix, these trees are heard communicating at a distance with three trees that sound closer to the listener. Each individual tree "voice" is a mix of many sounds, including musical ones created by pitch-bending deep notes generated by an analog synthesizer. Wood creaking, leaves rustling, and other natural sounds are blended with the synthesizer tone. The loudest tree in this composition is Michael Angelo Sanzio Raphael. This example is a mixdown of multiple parts, each triggered with specific text. These triggered components allow Opal to have a conversation with the trees.
This piece opens Act 2 and represents a change of season; a time for death and rebirth. Cold sounding wind is a component of this piece. The metallic sounding instrument in this mix has a cold timber. Opal has been quoted as having likened death to a seed being buried and later sprouting as a beautiful flower into a new environment.
This is created using the same process for the tree environment provided above, except that wet and cold sounding environmental noises are added. During the second half of the play, Opal witnesses her tree being sawed down.
Opal mentions a friend she refers to as the Girl with No Seeing. These three pieces represent her theme, and the deconstruction of it as this character passes away. We learn in the second act of the play that the Girl with No Seeing walks into a fire and dies. One scene before this, Opal walks with this girl and describes that the girl is beginning to hear nature's voice. The first version of the theme above includes the harp, flute and brass. The second one contains flute and harp only. The third has only harp.
The play concludes with overlapping text that sweeps like waves across the audience. The five Opals present moments of dialogue from previous parts of the play and refer to previous themes and characters. The sound design follows this text, and the themes and symbols from earlier points in the play are layered together. Each element in this example is actually a separate entity and is triggered with specific lines in the text.
These two collages contain some of the material above, plus extra sounds. These pieces allow the listener to experience the general feeling of how the music and sounds are layered together to create setting.