Opera is full of bullies. Take Scarpia, the licentious chief of police whose treachery brings down Tosca and Cavaradossi in Puccini's Tosca, which opened Vancouver Opera's season on Saturday.
A year from now, Vancouver audiences will bear witness to a new opera that draws from a slew of new bullying villains: a nasty gym coach, an assortment of schoolyard tormentors, an indifferent principal. But where classic works such as the Puccini masterpiece by definition end in tragedy, the contemporary opera to come will offer redemption, hope and the message that, yes, it gets better.
Vancouver Opera commissioned the new work from Shane Koyczan, based on his 2008 autobiographical novel in verse Stickboy. Koyczan's personal story has become legend: Born in Yellowknife and raised in Penticton, B.C., he went from bullied kid to kid bully. He later became a slam poetry champ, an Olympic opening ceremonies show-stealer and TED Talk superstar. Now he is finding yet another voice: opera librettist.
James Wright, general director of Vancouver Opera, was introduced to Stickboy – and Koyczan – by Vancouver arts advocate and anti-bullying crusader Sandy Garossino. "I was so moved by the [book]," says Wright, who commissioned the work.
Though Wright was never bullied himself, he says he still felt a strong connection to the book. "It's also about 'the other,'" he says. "And lots of us are 'the other' in one way or another. As a young gay person, I was certainly 'the other' in my small town. Always a little overweight, I was 'the other.' And [Stickboy] was very moving … and I thought this is so operatic and, as we try to do pieces that relate to our contemporary lives, it just seemed like a no-brainer."
In September, with just over a year until the opera's planned premiere, Koyczan and his collaborators – including composer Jordan Nobles, dramaturge Rachel Peake and VO's associate conductor and chorus director Leslie Dala – gathered in the basement at Vancouver Opera's headquarters for the project's first workshop. Koyczan began the session with a 25-page draft – a complete first act and half of the second. He wrote the rest over the course of the workshop. On the final afternoon, he answered his colleagues' questions about the script. The queries were about the libretto, yes, but many of the answers were about Koyczan's childhood, terrible years defined by familial upheaval and violent schoolyard tyranny.
"That's kind of the weird part about it," Koyczan said during an afternoon break. "This is a really personal story. And so to see it being acted out or become theatrical in some way is difficult, because these aren't pages in a book, these are pages of my life.
"Everybody's really respectful of that, and they're really sensitive to that," he continued. "But I have to be flexible as well, realizing it's for the sake of theatricality. Opera's quite big. So there are some things you have to bend to, but at the same time everybody's really mindful of [the fact] this is a real story. This isn't make-believe. This isn't Faust where the devil comes. This is school – which is maybe even ultimately more evil, I don't know."
The book tells the story of a boy who lives with his grandparents and is bullied terribly at school. He's beaten up and taunted by his classmates, yet ignored – or, worse, blamed – by school officials. When his family move south offers a fresh start, there is delicious hope – and then a crushing repeat of his bullied years, turning the boy into a bully himself.
"What is very exceptional is that this is Shane's story, so you know it's very personal," says Dala. "But he's remarkably able to talk about these very painful experiences."
Adapting the searing book for opera also poses challenges on practical levels. Stickboy is very much an internal expression with little dialogue, making it difficult to simply lift exchanges off the page. Further, Koyczan, who is known for his dazzling wordplay and whose work carries its own almost musical cadence, knows that setting the words to music requires simplicity of language.
At the same time, keeping Koyczan's signature voice as part of the opera – perhaps even literally – is extremely important.
"Because it's his story, and his style of performance is part of what people respond to," Peake explains. "And the idea of spoken word and opera working together makes so much sense to me."
After its premiere, a 45-minute version will be developed for the Vancouver Opera in Schools program. With this work, children can get an introduction to opera, along with an important life lesson: Sticks and stones can break your bones, and name-calling can also crush young souls.