Ethan Shaw has a clear idea of the character he will play in the opera "Little Nemo in Slumberland."

"He's a boy about my age — well, close to it, anyway," Shaw said. "And he really doesn't like to go to sleep. But when he finally does, he ends up in this magical place where all of a sudden he's supposed to save this world, even though he has no idea what's going on around him."

Shaw sighs theatrically, then adds, "It's hard to be me."

The grin that punctuates this statement belies its woebegone air. Shaw, an 11-year-old student at Riverfield Country Day School, is obviously pleased about having the title role in this show, which is being presented by Tulsa Youth Opera this weekend.

Tulsa Youth Opera is an educational program of Tulsa Opera, giving young singers from grades three through 12 quality training in opera performance.

Members are chosen through auditions, and this year's ensemble is made up of 43 young people, ages 9 to 17, from 20 different communities.

Tulsa Youth Opera singers have been part of some of Tulsa Opera's main productions, when the opera calls for crowd scenes or young voices. And the group presents a staged opera of its own each season.

This year's production, "Little Nemo in Slumberland," is perhaps the most ambitious work Tulsa Youth Opera has attempted.

The opera itself, by composer Daron Hagen and librettist J.D. McClatchy, is close to brand new. It had its world premiere in 2012 at Sarasota Opera, which had commissioned the work. Tulsa Youth Opera is only the third company to perform the piece.

Then there's the story itself. "Little Nemo in Slumberland" is based on the comic strips of Winsor McCay, about the dreamlike, almost surreal adventures a young boy named Nemo has whenever he falls asleep.

McCay's style of visual storytelling has been a powerful influence on the world of comics and graphic novels, influencing such creatives as Walt Disney and Alan Moore ("Watchmen"). The strips have been adapted for stage plays and animated films, as well as inspiring the look and action of the Tom Petty video of "Running Down a Dream."

"We're always looking for ways to raise the bar each year for the Youth Opera," said Tulsa Opera artistic director Kostis Protopapas. "I had become aware of Daron Hagen's music a few years ago and knew this piece was in the works. I had heard some of Daron's music and very much liked it."

Aaron Beck, Tulsa Opera's director of education and outreach, said the music of "Little Nemo in Slumberland" is "very tonal, yet still very modern. It was definitely a challenge for them to learn, but after five rehearsals, they were running through the show without stopping.

"We really have the cream of the crop in this show," he said. "The orchestra is also made up of students, all selected by audition, and I'm confident that anyone who hears them play will think it's an adult orchestra."

Mariah Robinson, 16, is in her fourth year with Tulsa Youth Opera. She has the role of The Princess, who serves as Nemo's escort through the world of Slumberland.

"A lot of the music is pretty easy," she said. "But there have been some portions that have been difficult to memorize. In the finale of Act One, I have to sing 'Nemo' for, like, a hundred times — and each time is a different note. So knowing which 'Nemo' goes where in that section has been maybe the hardest thing to learn."

Stanley M. Garner, who is directing the opera, said: "When I was first given the piece, I thought it was very ambitious. And then I thought maybe we were all just crazy enough to try and do it."

Renting the Sarasota production proved to be too expensive.

"They had tried literally to translate the look of the comics onto the stage," Garner said. "And there are things that happen in this story — people who grow into giants, a bed that gets up and walks, people who are to be shot out of a cannon — that required us to put on our thinking caps and figure out how in the world we're going to do this."

Erin Turner, the company's director of production, said: "This is very much a home-grown effort. We pretty much built this production from scratch, and everyone has done a great job of helping us create this world."

The production features video projections that will morph to show the changes in scene, as well as a few highly mobile pieces of scenery.

"It's a design that allows for a lot of flexibility," Turner said. "The fact that the majority of the story takes place during a dream lends itself to this kind of an approach."

What's at stake in "Little Nemo in Slumberland" is the world of dreams itself. Apparently the Emperor Sol, who rules the daytime hours, is demanding to have all 24 hours in the day to himself, thereby wiping out the night-time world of dreams, overseen by King Morpheus.

It's up to Nemo to find a way to preserve the world of dreams — a world that he now is eager to visit whenever he can.

"What I appreciate is the basic moral of the story," Garner said. "It's that we can compromise — that parties who seem diametrically opposed can negotiate and come to an agreement that suits everyone."

Robinson finds another message in the story.

"For me," she said, "it's really about how friends can help you find your way when you aren't sure about where you're going."

"And that," Shaw interjected, grinning, "comes right from the opera!"


'LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND'

presented by Tulsa Youth Opera

When: 2 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Williams Theatre, Tulsa PAC, 110 E. Second St.

Tickets: $5-$10. 918-587-4811, myticketoffice.com


James D. Watts Jr. 918-581-8478