By Konstantin Bozhinov
VANCOUVER — Stickboy, a world premiere from the Vancouver Opera, is a bravely relevant musical campaign against bullying. Composed by Neil Weisensel to a libretto by Shane Koyczan, it’s a welcome addition to the Vancouver Opera’s slim repertoire of commissioned works.
The production is impressive, featuring brilliant animated sets, thoughtful stage direction, and fitting music. Moreover, Stickboy has attracted a varied audience: at the Oct. 23 premiere, the Vancouver Playhouse was packed with music students and thirtysomethings, as well as more “typical” opera-goers.
Set in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Stickboy is the autobiographical story of Koyczan, a noted young Canadian poet. Acts I and II portray an unfortunately common experience in North America today. An overweight student — called simply the Boy — is taunted and beaten up. A teacher accuses the victim of provoking anger; the principal tries to remain neutral; and consolation during emotional crisis comes only from a family member. The Boy is later forced to walk home without his winter boots, and with ribs bruised by a hockey stick (hence the title).
And now comes the big surprise. Act III shows the Boy five years older at his new high school, and as years of anger are finally unleashed, he turns into a bully himself. After several episodes of self-harm, the scene shifts to his hospital bed, where the Grandmother again offers comfort. At graduation, the Boy is avoided by others and realizes he has no friends. In a final attempt to help, the Grandmother once again appears.
Koyczan’s libretto, a loose adaptation of his 2008 novel of the same title, is far from poetic, retaining his realistic and sometimes vulgar dialogue and combining introspective monologues with biting humor. In his program note, he confesses, “I can’t create a piece that will make an audience feel the experience of everyone who has endured this kind of treatment. What I can do is build an intimacy and a relationship between an audience and one person.” Koyczan proves that even the most mundane dialogue can have a powerful effect on stage, especially when set to brilliant music.
Weisensel, a composer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, has created a score that reveals a sensitive grasp of musical dramaturgy. Experienced in opera, film, and animation, he employs a wide palette of styles, techniques, and effects. The numerous fight scenes, accompanied by harsh avant-garde sounds, are balanced by the tender arias of the Grandmother, with their heart-wrenching Verdian dolor. But Weisensel has even more tricks up his operatic sleeve. In a moment of despair, or perhaps at a loss for words, the Grandmother sings a touching lament on a single syllable, while the Boy is harming himself behind a closed bedroom door. After the Boy’s transformation in Act III, this mute lament reappears, now transformed into a duet. As effective as these wordless solos are, the Boy-Grandmother duets ending acts II and III could have easily come from a Bernstein score.
Another classic operatic technique was the association of an instrument with a character — in this case the clarinet with the Grandmother. Although I would have appreciated a more frequent and less subtle geriatric leitmotif, several of the Grandmother’s arias were preceded by the same clarinet melody.
Rachel Peake’s perfectly suitable stage direction adds another level of complexity — despite the large cast, the Boy always appears at a distance from his classmates. Fittingly, only the grandparents and bullies get close to him.
The star of this production is without doubt tenor Sunny Shams, whose portrayal of the main character is a stunning debut. The inherent duality of the role, both as bullied and bully, doesn’t present a visible challenge for Shams. His mild and humble gestures while being beaten up, under a barrage of fat jokes, are skillfully balanced with the rude and aggressive bully of Act III. And his duets with the Grandmother reveal a subtle vocal artist.
The other star is mezzo Megan Latham, who previously appeared with the Vancouver Opera in 2010 as Marcellina in Le nozze di Figaro. Latham shows consummate acting skills in her portrayal of the Grandmother, and her lyric voice provides the perfect emotional anchor for the role.
Although the cast numbers over a dozen, there are no other prominent roles. Baritones Willy Miles-Grenzberg and Alan Macdonald demonstrate great diversity of talent, each portraying four different characters. While the best arias aren’t written for them, the baritones demonstrate fine acting skills.
The orchestra is conducted by Leslie Dala, associate director at the Vancouver Opera, whose fine leadership delivers a memorable performance. Despite a general unity between stage and orchestra pit, however, some fight-scene punches didn’t align with the music cues.
The video sets by Giant Ant, a Vancouver-based animation studio, are spectacular. Indeed, the opera’s 43 different scenes could only be realized through this medium. A telling example: During outdoor target-practice in Act II, the animations show the tin-can target of the bullet morphing into the face of the school bully. The Boy’s monologues are frequently accompanied by visual representations of his thoughts, particularly the unleashed monster-bully of Act III. Totally consistent with the overall theme of social relevance, these animations add a level of psychological depth rarely seen on the operatic scene.
In Stickboy, Koyczan and Weisensel infuse a traditional form with a unique blend of socially relevant issues, a touching personal story, and a contemporary presentation.
Vancouver Opera’s Stickboy runs through Nov. 7.
Konstantin Bozhinov is a musicologist in Victoria, British Columbia, and a professional performer on the lute and baroque guitar.