New Vancouver opera tackles bullying

Canadian Press, October 30, 2015

VANCOUVER – Adolescence can be full of drama and cruelty. So can opera, making Stickboy an artistic expression of both.

‍     The new work about school bullying opened to positive reviews in the city and will run until Nov. 7, with hopes of having the production tour high schools throughout British Columbia.

‍     It tells the story of poet Shane Koyczan, who wrote the libretto based on his experience of being tormented and belittled at school before eventually becoming a bully himself.

‍     Composer Neil Weisensel, who was commissioned by Vancouver Opera to write the score, said his job was to tell the story musically. He wrote the score in just seven months.

‍     “I do write quickly,” he said. “I moved everything else I was doing off to the side and concentrated on this. The libretto leant itself very easily to being set to music. I had three weeks to come up with the first act. Then I had another two months to come up with acts two and three.”

‍     He delivered the finished score, with orchestration and arrangements, on his Aug. 11 deadline.

‍     Kids picked on Koyczan from the age of 10 when he lived in Yellowknife, N.W.T. By the time he had moved to Penticton, B.C., he was the bully. His grandmother, who raised him, is one of the few sympathetic characters in a harrowing story. The opera’s title refers to an imaginary being made of sticks of dynamite, embodying the central character’s rage.

‍     Stickboy is a landmark undertaking in a couple of ways. Few opera companies commission new work, relying on proven crowd-drawing favourites for most of their repertoire. Its subject matter is also new. Both are aimed at getting new audiences for the art form.

‍     “I had a friend fly in from Winnipeg who’s a naturopathic doctor, kind of an everyday joe,” Weisensel said. “He is my target audience — somebody who’s never been to theatre before. He had an incredible theatrical experience.”

‍     But there’s also something there for the opera diehards — beautiful Puccini-like melodies and big voices singing together with an orchestra, Weisensel said.

‍     “My daughter is eight. She’s coming. There’s one bad word, said twice. I think there’s a whole new audience that could potentially be interested in opera because of this work.”

‍     Weisensel had to create more than music for the production.

‍     “There was a sound design, which I did as well. It was like writing an opera and scoring a film at the same time. All the animations in the show lend themselves to a cinematic treatment, so I provided a soundscape and sound design, on top of what the orchestra was doing.”

‍     Writing a new opera let Weisensel draw from a wider range of sources than most composers because of the opera’s subject matter and the musical history preceding it.

‍     “As composers today, we’re lucky,” he said. “Fifty years ago, you couldn’t have written a score like this. Your contemporaries would’ve ostracized you. It had to be avant garde, it had to be serial. You couldn’t write anything that had a tune. Now we’ve moved even beyond the post-modernist.

‍     “I think Vancouver Opera is a visionary company in Canada for doing a work like this,” Weisensel said. “They’re swinging for the fences with this production, putting everything they have into it, and I really appreciate that. I think the public will appreciate that, too.”

‍     Vancouver Opera spokeswoman Selina Rajani said the company would like to see the work go beyond concert halls or theatres and into high schools.

‍     “We’re looking at putting together a touring company and editing it down,” she said.

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