Vancouver Opera‘s latest production, Stickboy, aspires for a Michelin-starred meal, but poutine does not a gour-make.
Okay, okay, enough of with the bad pun. The VO hired poet, Shane Koyczan, to write a libretto for an opera. Some of you may remember Koyczan as the poet who performed his poem, “We Are More,” at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winer Olympics in Vancouver, to great acclaim. I remember watching him speak, and being moved by his words and by the passion of his performance. I had high hopes for the libretto for Stickboy.
Stickboy is actually a pretty decent operetta. The plot is current to Canadian themes du jour: namely, bullying. We’ve had a slew of high profile incidents of young people committing suicide after succumbing to the pressures of bullying: Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons spring to mind. The opera opens with a nameless boy, severely overweight, figuratively falling onto the stage, and we watch him get bullied from the age of ten until his graduation from high school five years later. Honestly, it is painful to watch this nameless kid get kicked around the stage, and progress from bullied to bully.
Why is it painful? Because the character is not one with whom you can empathize easily, or at all for that matter. He comes off as a patsy, with nary a bone in his body to help him stand up to the taunting and slapping. You sort of want to yell at him, from the side, to kick back, hit back, name call back. Yet the boy, likely an attempt at an everyman, does nothing to help himself, save ask meaningless questions (“Why?”) in order to receive meaningless answers (“Because.”). Not that there is anything wrong with having an unsympathetic character, but in an opera, you tend to want to have a main character for who you can root, whose foibles charm and rally, rather than offend or repel. It is hard to rally for the boy, because he is weak and helpless, in a pathetic sort of way.
I know I am not being sympathetic to the bullied boy here, but bear with. Koyczan’s portrayal of the bullying opened up a debate amongst my fellow opera goers, which I would argue is the success of the opera: to have open and frank discussions about what makes the bully and what makes the bullied. I am just pointing out that for the medium of an opera, the main character should be someone about whom we can be passionate about, not someone who we we realize we have to restrain ourselves from joining in the taunting. Again, hats off to Koyczan in this regard.
The other critique of character I have is that there was no main villain to act as a foil to the boy’s antihero (of sorts). The two bullies, one in each of the first two acts, barely garner a name, and the root of their characters is barely scratched. On that note, you wonder why the boy is so spineless; what made him that way? Why doesn’t he have any, and I mean any, friends? The lack of friends is in and of itself troubling, and suggests that there is more abnormal to the boy than normal. Which leads me to Koyczan’s clever depiction of the beast within the boy. The beast is what many of us would call ‘spine’ or ‘gumption;’ those characteristics that intrinsically give someone a subtle air of confidence that a potential bully will suss out and avoid. The bullying is not about the boy’s weight either, as lots of larger kids have perfectly normal childhoods; I would argue that the boy’s weight issue is the physical manifestation of his abnormal character, and thus the easy target for the kids around him to pick on in some quasi-biological imperative to drive out the weak from the pack. Unfortunately for the boy, the beast turns into something more dreadful, something more Hyde-esque, by the time the boy reaches Penticton, and the bullied becomes the bully.
I loved the use of animated sets to help elucidate metaphors and themes. Three giant screens act as back drops, and bring to life the boy’s years in Yellowknife and in Penticton, respectively, as well as the settings of the schools, school yards, and the boy’s home. The opera was performed at the Vancouver Playhouse, rather than the QE, and the more intimate and smaller setting of that theatre was very appropriate for this operetta. The other bonus was the movable floor in the middle of the stage, as the opera ran as a series of chronological, fast-paced vignettes, that made the opera delightfully fly by. Two hours passed so quickly, which in and of itself was an hour shaved off of the typical opera length, and wholly appropriate for this opera.
The singing was okay, nothing particularly strong but nothing particularly terrible either. The strongest singer was Megan Latham as the boy’s grandmother, and her warm voice complimented her touching performance as the loving support to the boy. On that note, the acting from all the performers was outstanding, from Sunny Shams excellent take on the boy (his voice was good and I can see his potential as he matures as a singer), to the chorus as they boy’s classmates. Shams’ subtle performance as the bullied boy makes the opera.
The libretto was excellent. I know I’ve dished on the characterization, but I did enjoy the libretto very much and think that this opera is worthy to share internationally. Koyczan’s words resonated with the audience, and certainly provided much for discussion around my family’s dinner table that evening.
Lastly, the music. I loved Neil Weisensel‘s subtle melodies and use of instruments to highlight characters and themes. The beast, highlighted on the screens, was brought to life through raucous horns, which reminded me of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite for some reason; the grandmother was always accompanied by gentle music, I think it was the clarinet, that wrapped around you like a comfortable quilt and gave you a cup of hot cocoa to make things better. The better part of the music was evocative of Michael Nyman and Vivaldi: lots of strings and very landscaped. I thought Weisensel did a brilliant job of accompanying Koyczan’s libretto.
Ultimately, no matter how I feel about the boy, I still feel sorry for him, as no one deserves to be treated like a turd on the bottom of someone’s shoe.
And you know what? I love poutine.