Sunny Shams (Boy), Megan Latham (Grandmother), Willy Miles-Grenzberg, Heather Pawsey, Alan Macdonald; Music composed by Neil Weisensel, Libretto by Shane Koyczan, Leslie Dala (conductor), Rachael Peake (Director) Drew Facey (Set Designer), with animation by Giant Ant, Vancouver Playhouse, October 24, 2014

You can’t get more topical than bullying. But is opera the medium to show it? That’s the question I was asking myself before attending the Vancouver Playhouse last night for Vancouver Opera’s latest commission, Stickboy, with music by Neil Weisensel and libretto by Shane Koyczan. Weisensel is a Winnipeg composer with a number of operas under his belt and Koyczan is a well-known spoken-word artist. With the help of a strong production team and cast, they pulled it off. Stickboy is a compelling work with a powerful libretto and equally powerful music.

The opera offers many chances for the exercise of self-pity, but the libretto has enough bite and wit that it largely avoids it, though it comes perilously close with a story that threatens to grow thin with its narrow scope and repetitiousness.  This is especially true in the first two acts: incidents of bullying alternating with ‘debriefings’ at home. It mitigates these potential weaknesses through its uncompromising honesty and the variations it plays on its themes. It varies discourses: voice-over, asides to the audience by the main character, dramatic exchanges, and lyrical utterance. This lends a sense of texture to the work.

The opera also employs dramatic variation within repeated sequences, such as the scene of Boy and Grandmother writing notes to each other in a scribbler and sliding them under the door, he outwards from his room, she inwards. The first time, we see them actually writing in the notebook and pushing it back and forth under the door—a powerful image of isolation and the attempt to connect. The second time, they simply stand and sing a poignant wordless melisma while their ‘writing’ appears on the screens in their different handwriting—a very moving sequence. The opera also advances swiftly by its use of brief vignettes, a forward momentum helped by the wonderful sets, projections, and direction.

The production was first rate, highly inventive and highly polished. Drew Facey’s set was arresting, with its metal beams crookedly vertical, representing the hard edges of the story. They formed three frames across the stage, each holding a wall/screen at the back for projections. The projections by Jamie Nesbitt, with visuals by Giant Ant, were brilliant, portraying external and internal reality with real impact, the cartoons attractive and vibrant, both still (but always shimmering with energy) and animated. The turntable, which quickly brought in and took out just enough props to set the minimalist scenes, was also effective, adding to that sense of propulsive movement that so marked the production and the opera itself.  Rachel Peake’s direction was excellent, with its natural movement and convincing interactions among the characters.

I found the music highly satisfying with its stylistic eclecticism matching the varieties of discourse, locale, and incident. As I listened, I heard hints of Copland, Britten, John Adams, jazz. This is not to argue the music is derivative, though it occasionally does owe things to other composers. What I look for in an operatic score is not whether it is groundbreaking but whether it matches the story being told, how well it takes up its share of the dramatic burden. Weisensel’s music worked admirably in telling the story and conveying its varying moods.

And how interesting and at times (forgive the anachronism) how beautiful his music sounds. It reminded me that—despite modernism and postmodernism—melody still lies at the heart of music, being its most essential ingredient. I also enjoyed the wonderful range of timbres the composer achieved with his tiny orchestra, from the jarring to the intimate, with an inventive use of the instruments. My only quarrel—as it is with most contemporary opera—was with the recitative. When did composers get the idea that recitative is boring? The recitative of Stickboy sounded perfunctory, with no sense that any musical thought had gone into it. I found myself at times wishing for the spoken word instead.

The performances were generally excellent, with Sunny Shams making much of his role as Boy, both vocally and in terms of his acting. Megan Latham as Grandmother was first rate, doing full justice to her big numbers. Willy Miles-Grenzberg was characterful and versatile in his various roles. The rest of the cast was likewise strong in both acting and singing and had a very professional feel to them.

The Vancouver Opera Orchestra under Leslie Dala played with verve, giving good service to the music. Altogether, an exhilarating evening: Vancouver Opera is to be congratulated on a successful commission.

© Harvey De Roo 2014