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Many operas contain violent episodes, but few address violence as a social issue. Long Leaf Opera, for years our region’s most innovative company, has offered a very short – 32 minute – work, in English (in keeping with the company’s mission), that deals with school bullying, specifically among girls. The topic is timely, given several recent tragic events in our (national) schools. On hand to discuss the problem in a post-performance discussion with the cast and the audience were representatives of the Family Violence Prevention Center of Orange County.
For Susan Kander’s One False Move, written for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City in 2003, LLO’s cast – young singers, and mostly vocalists making their operatic debuts – included Sarah Hausmann as Amy, who does the bullying, Kaswanna Kanyinda as Bonnie, the former best friend who is the victim of the bullying, Maggie Ramsay as Joann, the new best friend, and Nora Burgard as Mary Ann, the nerd one might have thought would be the victim…. The adults were Maggie Pate Duffey, as the oblivious Teacher, and Susan Palm Siplong the out-of-touch, in denial Mother (a speaking role). The pianist was Jon Latane, Benjamin Keaton, LLO’s Music Director, conducted, LLO co-founder Randolph Umberger served as host, and on this occasion the stage manager* was Kelsey Shea. The cast also included a flock of classmates who served as the impressive chorus. At times, members of this group took part in the action, but elsewhere they commented on it, much as a Greek chorus would do. These young artists (listed in alphabetical order) were Naomi Barbee, Eve Devonport, Jessie Feng, Claire Hoke, Sarah Martin, Lien Raets, Olivia Shaheen, Grace Siplong, and Julianne Vance. The program included short bios of each artist, who were mostly middle and high school students from throughout the Triangle area.
The show was given a bare-bones setting – the props were some plastic-pipe frames that served as doors, a blackboard, and mirrors in the restroom. Chairs provided seats for the chorus along the back wall and in the quickly-formed, quickly-dismantled classroom. The costumes were (presumably) typical of what middle and high school students might wear in settings where strict dress codes do not exist. Put another way, nothing distracted from the consistently high quality of the solo and choral singing – or the message, which centers on a former best friend being displaced by a new best friend – and then bullied – or, if you prefer, picked on or harassed – by her former pal and the new friend.
And who could not identify in some way with this? The problem seems ubiquitous, and it’s certainly of long standing, although the post-performance discussion hammered home another well-known fact: the internet, texting, and social networking have made this sort of thing much easier to perpetrate, and with far fewer opportunities for engaged students to retreat or escape.
One False Move worked well as an action-packed and intense bit of theatrical drama with music. The cast sang with refreshing clarity and directness, demonstrating some strong vocal skills of the best and healthiest kind – there was virtually none of the kind of belting that makes Broadway such an ordeal today – and there wasn’t a microphone in sight.
The casting of the victim perhaps inadvertently introduced elements other than bullying, for she was the only African-American and one of only two fairly substantial people in the cast. Observers may at times have wondered if the former-friend/new-friend theme was meant to be the only dynamic at work.
Turnout was small, but the show was given three times, with a repeat on the afternoon of June 6, for details of which see our calendar. It’s well worth the trip to Chapel Hill’s Elizabeth Kenan Theatre, in UNC’s Center for Dramatic Art. This little opera will engage you on levels you might not think possible – and it’s exceptionally well done, too.
PS There was an excellent article on this production and the problem it addresses in the Chapel Hill News. For Dave Hart’s story, click here.
*Edited/corrected 6/6/10. The production team consisted of Benjamin Keaton, Margaret Pate Duffey, and Randolph Umberger. The lighting was by Sarah Smiley.