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"The Carnival of the Animals" at the Miller Theatre

by Steven Pisano

20181214-_DSC7849(All photographs by Steven Pisano.)

The Carnival of the Animals, a fanciful suite of brief musical portraits of different animals, was composed in 1886 by Camille Saint-Saens as a way to avoid working on his more serious "Third Symphony" for organ. The work may have started out as a diversion, but Saint-Saens had so much fun writing it, he couldn't stop himself. Aside from private concerts held for his friends, Saint-Saens refused to let the music be published during his lifetime, except for one brief passage - the Swan, which is considered one of the most beautiful solos for cello ever written - for fear that his stature as a composer would be tarnished by being associated with such light, transient music. Ironically, Carnival of the Animals has become perhaps Saint-Saens' best-known work.

There are 14 parts profiling different animals, starting off with lions and ending with a swan, with a finale including all. Not all of the music is original. For example, Saint-Saens used the famous high-energy Can-can music from Offenbach's operetta Orpheus in the Underworld, but slowed down to a humorous pace to depict slow-moving tortoises. Many modern audiences perk up suddenly at the "Aquarium" section depicting fishes, because it eerily sounds like Hedwig's theme song for the Harry Potter movies (and John Williams has admitted this was a source of inspiration).

The Miller Theatre at Columbia University presents a rich and widely varying program of musical offerings each season, including one of 2018's musical highlights: the new opera Proving Up by Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek. For the holidays, Miller presented what is fast becoming a yearly tradition of The Carnival of the Animals, featuring a marvelous 10-person orchestra under musical director Laura Barger and six skilled puppeteers in a production designed and directed by Lake Simons.


In this production, Saint-Saens' original music is interspersed with verses written by the poet Ogden Nash for a 1949 recording conducted by Andre Kostelanetz. Jennifer Kidwell proved to be a very entertaining Narrator, guiding the piece through all its paces, from beginning to end.

If you are looking for fresh holiday fare for children, or if you are a child at heart, mark your calendars now for next year's performances of this delightful annual production.

20181214-_DSC8678More photos can be found here.