Maia Aprahamian was lunching one afternoon with the folks who run the Stonington Opera House.

“Suddenly, it hit me. I said, ‘You know, ‘Burt Dow’ would make an incredible opera.’ This is my schtick, opera writing. They livened to the idea.”

Five years later, Aprahamian’s idea has become reality. Opera House Arts, the programming wing of Stonington Opera House, presents the premiere of the musical version of the Robert McCloskey children’s book “Burt Dow, Deep Water Man” at 7 p.m. Thursday. The opera continues through July 11, with Portland bass-baritone Daniel Noel in the title role and a mostly local cast, including Suzanne Ruch singing the show’s soprano lead.

It’s a classic Downeast story, written by McCloskey, who lived on Deer Isle and wrote the story about the people he knew. The title character is based on a former island fisherman, who is buried locally under a stone provided by McCloskey that reads, “Burt Dow, Deep Water Man.”

Aprahamian lives in California, but knows Stonington well. She summered in Stonington as a child, and has family there still. She is part of the local Whitman family.

She has composed operas and short works for more than 40 years. She wrote “Burt Dow” with students from the Deer Isle-Stonington and Brooklin elementary school as part of an artist-in-residency program last year. It is scored for three soloist, an eight-member children’s choir, 12-member adult choir and six-piece orchestra.

Aprahamian has watched “with some amazement” the accomplishments of Opera House Arts over the past decade. She never imagined the old opera house on the harbor where she watched movies as a kid could be brought back to life, and done with so much original programming.

“I just thought this was a great project for the island,” the composer said. “The story of Burt Dow is so much a part of the people whom I know very well. I didn’t have anything in mind musically, but I had it in my mind to be absolutely true to the story.”

To write with the kids, Aprahamian went into the classrooms and talked to the students about the book and their impressions of it. Her work also involved making instruments.

To recreate the sound of the whale in the McCloskey story, students came up with what Aprahamian calls a horse horn. It’s a small garden hose with a big funnel on one end and a small funnel on the other. “You blow it, and it has the most god-awful sound,” she said. “This became the signature for the whale, the interior of the whale.”

Linda Nelson, director of Opera House Arts, said “Burt Dow” represents exactly the kind of programming that her arts group endeavors to create. It’s local, original and unique to the community, and it employs professional artists working in Maine.

“This totally captures our mission better than any other program we have done,” said Nelson. “It is a piece of art that speaks to the culture here and the people here.”

Joan Jubett directs the production, with musical direction by Peter Szep. The children’s choir includes Amy Bolton, Eliza Borntraeger, Alyssa Chesney, Alison Eaton, Riley Getto, Marvin Merritt, Elliott Peter Nevells and Justin Rhys. Getto, a fourth-grader, also will sing the lead role of the Giggling Gull.

Noel, who has starred in several productions at Portland Stage Company, Theater at Monmouth and elsewhere, has enjoyed transforming himself into a fisherman. “It’s just a neat story about a laid-back fisherman who loves natures. It’s a really nice story, and I just love being the character. The songs are beautiful. It’s really melodic, and just a nice story about a fisherman, his friendships and the community.”

 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: [email protected]pressherald.com