Michael James Park, DIAGNOSIS: DIABETES: Erato Ensemble: Dorothea Hayley (soprano), Cathleen Gingrich (soprano), Melanie Adams (mezzo), William George (tenor), Peter Alexander (baritone), with Jeff Pelletier (flute), Julie Begg (clarinet), Yun Jung (violin), Stefan Hintersteininger (cello), Nina Horvath (piano), Keven Zakresky (conductor), Orpheum Annex, October 10, 2015.  

All photos by Christoph Rondeau

All photos by Christoph Rondeau

Diagnosis: Diabetes is a new chamber opera by Vancouver composer Michael James Park.  It is written for modest forces and challenges the definition of opera in an exciting way through its idiosyncratic format and audience interactive intermezzi. In four scenes, Diagnosis: Diabetes portrays moments in the life of Charlie, a person who has received a diagnosis of diabetes, first while still a child (challenging his parents), and later when Charlie is middle aged, learning to deal with his illness on his own. Framing these two scenes are ‘game-show inspired’ intermezzi, wherein the audience is tasked with retaining just a sample of the medical information that Charlie and his parents must learn to manage his illness.

Park’s arrangement of his dramatic materials -- based on his own book -- reveal his keen perception of television programming and its practice of creating dramatic sequences that must accommodate interruptions by paid advertising. Park turns this convention on its head by using the acquired space between dramatic moments to reach out to the audience for empathy, disguised as a game.  Participation in this game allows viewers to become engaged by their absorptive experience: we feel for Charlie because we have been asked to really act as ‘him’ in real time, not because we externally identify ourselves with him through dramatic events.  It’s a most refreshing approach to ‘informative’ art.

Park’s music is, for the most part, extremely well-crafted. He has clearly absorbed Broadway and the incidental music of Hollywood, but the overriding impression is one of a dramatic composer fully assured in his ability to evoke mood and place through his musical constructions.  Perhaps there is a hint of the academic in Park’s harmony, not unexpected from a composer just starting out, and more attention could have been paid to hyper-metrical considerations, especially in orchestral transitions.  Nonetheless, Park desirably manages to steer clear of both pop influences and aimless atonality.

Erato Ensemble did a wonderful job of bringing this tricky little work into a smooth and professional production.  The singing was particularly fine.  Especially noteworthy was the singing and acting in “Any Blood Sugar Less Than Four” -- the first scene quintet for Charlie (William George), his parents, and health professionals.  Diagnosis: Diabetes is a delightful bibelot of a work that affords an intimate look into a topic that is supremely important, but remains far from familiar in artistic settings.


© Kate Mackin 2015