The Opera That was Too Close for Comfort

It has been a while since I have posted, and this time I promise that it will be more than pointless this time.

I guess just to catch up, it’s been a hectic ride, trying to pull up my socks and get into the swing of the academic expectations of university life. I had never written a five page paper before, but I do suppose there is a first time for everything. Thus, I do apologize for the long hiatus. In light of my recent success of finishing more of my research paper than I had anticipated, I decided to reward myself but doing some non-academic, free writing here on my beloved blog.

This had been on my mind for an entire week, and what better way to share my experience than right here. Because I had a week I (somewhat) formulated my thoughts and my feelings, so here goes nothing:

Exactly one week ago, I went to my first opera ever, Stickboy, with my music history class and teacher. Though Stickboy did not meet traditional opera standards (huge orchestra, foreign languages, crazy elaborate sets, etc.), I was so glad that this was my first opera. For one thing, I could understand the singers because they sang in English. The other thing was that I could relate to the content all too well.

Stickboy is based on a book by spoken word artist Shane Koyczan, who was a feature performer at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games closing ceremony. As a lover of slam poetry, this was one of my earliest glimpses into such an art that really drove my curiosity and passion for it. Stickboy is raw and uncomfortably auto-biographical, following the life of the main character “The Boy” and his journey through elementary and high school. The Boy was bullied relentlessly no matter where he went, and teachers at the various schools would do nothing to help him, and even blame him for provoking the bullies. The only ray of light in the Boy’s life was his grandmother. She raised him and took care of him, listened when he needed someone to talk to and provided a crying shoulder.

Without ruining the plot of the story, the opera closes with a bittersweet ending. There really is no resolution to the Boy’s bullying problem except through default – he graduates and is able to move on. He survived the jungle of torment and the desert of pain, but despite all this and his attempt at change, he never is fully accepted by his peers.

With libretto by Koyczan, music composed for a small chamber orchestra by Neil Weisenel, and powerful on-screen animations and projections by Giant Ant Productions, Stickboy touched audience members of all ages and brought many young people into opera theatres. The elderly lady beside me did not have a dry eye from the moment the Boy (played by British Columbian tenor Sunny Shams) opened his mouth. The man beside her, a man in a sharp suit around the age 45, even started crying when the Boy and his grandmother sang a moving duet – a duet with no words, just mere humming.

One of the reasons that I was so emotionally tied up in this opera was the issues that arose surrounding it. Unfortunately Stickboy is not just representative of Shane Koyczan’s childhood but also that of many children and teenagers all over Canada and the States. The problem is that bullying is still happening, whether we are aware of it or not.

For me (and this is definitely a spoiler alert, so I apologize), the most profound and touching scene was a scary one. As a teenager, the Boy begins to fall into a depression and begins cutting. The ‘cutting’ scene is hypnotically orchestrated, looping for a total of nearly 6 minutes to portray his daily anger, sadness and ultimately his despair. Resorting to a blunt box knife, he cuts and cuts until the bleeding does not stop. This hit me like a ton of bricks.

In previous posts I have touched on my own experience with bullying and depression. For some magical reason that I am blessed with, God made blood my demise. I went through depression but was all too scared to cut. However, I could relate to hitting every piece of furniture with my fists and spending night after night screaming and conjuring ways to die. Watching this scene after nearly two years of recovery transported me back to those days, days that I am sad that I went through but thankful that I got through.

I admire Shane Koyczan. Having to live through your life over and over throughout rehearsals is a brave thing to do. The most admirable quality is that not only was he able to make it through one of the most difficult times of his life, but he turned around and made it an important thing to share with the rest of the world. Stickboy is something that everyone should see, whether or not you have experienced bullying.

I was so pleased to hear that a condensed version for one singer and a four piece ensemble would begin travelling all over Canada beginning next year, bringing Stickboy to elementary and high schools. Though the impact would be slightly different, it is my hope that all children and teenagers (and parents) see Stickboy should the opportunity ever arise.

(Photo by Tim Matheson)

The catchphrase for Stickboy is “There’s a bully in all of us”. I hope that as time goes on, bullying will be erased and eliminated in our schools, and that the bully inside us does not ever have any possibility of manifesting itself in our lives.

“Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” – Deuteronomy 31:6 

So let us strive to put the bully inside of us away for good in our society. Love one another for who they are and build one another up, and continue to spill ink while you do. Happy weekend, everyone. Hopefully I will be back soon 🙂

x R