Saturday, October 25, 2014

Vancouver Opera's Production of Stickboy

At bottom is the result of five hours of thinking, reading and writing (10PM - 3AM), what I submitted and what was published in today's Globe and Mail. The only difference between the text at bottom and the text in the paper is a correction I made (my fault) to Paragraph 6: it is Act One to which I refer, not Act Two.

Music by Neil Weisensel
Libretto by Shane Koyczan
Performed by Vancouver Opera
At the Vancouver Playhouse
Thursday Night

An opera about a boy bullied for his chubbiness should have no problem casting its lead. A bigger problem lies in assembling a cast slender enough to keep him from blending in. No difference, no problem, right? But bullying is more complex than that, and if there is a prescription for this social problem, it might be found not in what sticks out on life's playground, but in our relationship to stereotypes -- such as the one that has opera singers as chubby. 

Understanding the construction and perpetuation of stereotypes is among the challenges that face Vancouver Opera's adaptation of librettist Shane Koyczan's 2008 novel-in-verse Stickboy: Does this production simply supply us with a feel-good recovery narrative, populated by stock characters, one suitable for all audiences? Or does it attempt to convey the more complicated interior conversation of its source material?  

The Boy at the centre of this opera is not the Stickboy but the conductor of an internal chorus made up of inner selves with whom The Boy converses. We meet him first at the schoolyard, where he is walloped by Chris, a bully two years his senior. The attack (one could hardly call it a fight) is broken up by the Old Man, a war veteran who, after a few too many recitative lines, takes The Boy home to his sympathetic Grandmother and remains with them as she tends The Boy's wounds.

The visual transition from schoolyard battleground to kitchen triage is slight, aided by the Playhouse's revolving stage and coloured by the equally spare story book animation of Giant Ant, whose manic images are projected onto three window-to-the-mind-style screens. As is the case with more-recent North American operas, where historical periods (Romantic, Modern) stand in for mood (sadness, anger), composer Neil Weisensel's score is similarly patterned, though in its fluidity it often feels more like design than art.

But it is the relationship between The Boy, played to perfection by lyric tenor Sunny Shams, and his Grandmother, mezzo Megan Latham, that lifts this production and provides us our love story. Although little is asked of them musically (apart from a soaring duet in Act Three), their union benefits from recurrent scenes where the two exchange notes under The Boy's bedroom door, with their cursive texts projected onto the screens as if written by the melisma of their vocal lines.

As for the remainder of Act One, The Boy returns to school and is again attacked by Chris, after which he discovers the word FATASS written on his locker. "Maybe if you lost some weight," the Janitor intones. But it gets worse. Upon entering class, The Boy is harassed by his fellow students, then blamed by his Teacher for provoking them. When the Principal asks The Boy who defaced his locker, he refuses to say, and is given a detention -- with Chris. Once home, The Boy punches his bedroom wall. Following that, he receives the first of his grandmother's notes.

Unlike the Old Man and his Grandmother, who rescue and console him, the Janitor, the Teacher and the Principal blame him. This is where Koyczan's libretto threatens to transcend the stock characterization and stereotypes associated with more hyperbolic operatic roles, revealing the libertarian side of the "personal responsibility" argument that has come to infiltrate our schools and those we elect to fund them. Nowhere is this argument more manifest than in the United States, where one of its biggest lobby groups has as its slogan: "Guns don't kill people, people kill people."

And so it is in Act Two that The Boy, amidst further debasements, becomes acquainted with his Grandfather's gun. However, despite his attempt to take the gun to school, the gesture is just as quickly diffused by his Grandmother who, in a riveting passage, declares that neither The Boy nor the gun will be leaving the house because "We are sick today." Although this would have made a fine end to Act Two, this time it is the energy of that passage that is diffused through the Grandmother's subsequent attempt at a teaching moment.

Act Three begins with the Grandmother announcing to The Boy that they are moving. Things go well at first -- until a classmates teases The Boy and he explodes, beating him up. Thus the bullied becomes the bully, and in confronting his new status we meet the Stickboy inside him, an equally explosive daemon who, through self-mutilation, causes The Boy more harm than before, until he ends up in the hospital.

Rather than contrive the situation towards a triumphant end, the opera concludes not with an aria but with The Boy speaking to the audience directly, like the disembodied Narrator at the beginning. Only this time the tense has shifted -- to the present. "I can only tell you how it feels," he says. And in telling us without song, he returns us to its source.

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