From monster topic pieces, a monster opera has been built.
Bullying targets kids, so kids are the target audience for “Frankenboy! A Monsteropera,” commissioned by the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre. The one-act show, written and directed by Robert Lindsey-Nassif of Cedar Rapids, premieres on the CSPS stage Friday at 7:30 p.m. There are two more shows Saturday and another on Sunday. The opera will travel to area schools in January.
The idea grew out of opera theater founder Daniel Kleinknecht’s desire to do a socially responsible work, in the manner of “Shadows,” an opera about living with AIDS, which toured New York City public schools. Kleinknecht, a music professor at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, saw the piece when he was on sabbatical in Manhattan in 2007-08.
“I was taken by the idea of taking life experience and creating opera,” he says. “You can’t pick up the newspaper, can’t watch a news program without finding out how children are so bullied these days. It just seemed like the right time to propose to the board to do something with social significance.”
The board agreed, so he turned to Nassif, who has worked with a who’s who of theater, including Stephen Sondheim, Carol Burnett and Hal Prince. His shows have been produced on and off Broadway, in Los Angeles and locally, most recently when the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre staged his “Flight of the Lawnchair Man” at Theatre Cedar Rapids in June 2010. Nan Riley and her late husband, Tom, longtime local supporters of Nassif’s work, signed on as sponsors.
A year in the making, “Frankenboy!” stars four members of the opera theater’s Young Artist Program, singing, dancing and speaking a message of diversity and acceptance.
It’s the tale of Melvin Frankenstein, a 13-year-old boy “built last Wednesday” in his father’s lab. His first day at Transylvania Middle School brings trouble for the new kid with green skin and bolts in his neck. He’s easy pickings for Butch, the rough tough hockey hero, and cheerleader Crystal, who moons over Butch. Science geek Shelley is intrigued by Melvin, but wary.
“She’s torn between two worlds,” says Nassif, who named her in honor of “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley. “She wants to be part of the cool crowd — but she also understands how Melvin feels as an outsider and thinks he’s the most amazing science project imaginable.”
Eventually, Melvin gets blamed for something he didn’t do, and in true Frankenstein fashion, Butch rallies the students to march to his house brandishing hockey sticks and pompons, instead of pitchforks and torches.
“It builds to a climax on a stormy night when the kids go to confront Frankenboy and find themselves in unexpected danger,” Nassif says. “Frankenboy saves the day in a surprising way.”
Nassif dipped into his days of writing for Disney to craft a show that would appeal to youngsters and adults, on different levels.
“The hardest part of any writing is the idea,” he says. “If you get it right, it’s like heading out with a road map. You’re going to get to your destination. I wanted to make sure I had the concept. I had a lot of other ideas, but was most attracted to the idea of a young monster entering middle school. It just tickled me. I also think of the stark reality of 500 kids sitting on a hard gym floor watching opera singers. We’ve got to grab them and not let them go. ”
Nassif used music to set scenes.
“They would hear frightening music and know the monster is coming, or see the monster and hear friendly music and they would know that he’s OK, or hear touching music after the monster has been bullied and they’ll understand how he feels. The music will make them feel how he feels.”
Nassif explores a wide range of musical styles.
“Rob’s music is quite wonderful,” Kleinknecht says. “It’s something adults will enjoy, but students also will understand it.”
Tenor Brian J. Kuhl of Minneapolis, who appeared earlier this season in “The Merry Widow” and “The Face on the Barroom Floor” for the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre, is back to play Melvin.
He says the challenge is to believe the material where “the character is supposed to be 13 and I’m pushing 31.”
“With a contrived situation, you have to be in the moment,” Kuhl says. “If you can’t sell it or don’t believe it yourself, your audience won’t believe you.”
Regardless of the convention, the scenarios ring true.
“The situations are familiar,” Kuhl says. “In school, there were times when I didn’t always fit in, so I can relate to some of those situations.”
The opera theater teamed with Johnson School of the Arts to have students write about their bullying experiences, which were shared with Nassif during his research phase.
“The results were harrowing and heartbreaking,” Nassif says. “With the connectivity of the Internet, everywhere is everywhere today. There’s no escape. If you’re bullied at school, you’re bullied with every step you take. All the kids have smartphones. If a bully wants you, they know just where you are at every moment, and they can shame you in social media in a way that was never possible before.”
He said the message of “Frankenboy” “is be your own kind of monster.”
That speaks to the emotional heart of the show.
“There’s a number called ‘Normal.’ I cried when I wrote it,’” he says. “I just want to say to (young audiences): ‘You are perfect just the way you are and don’t you let the world tell you differently.’ They need this message.”
He wants adults to hear the same message in the show.
“I hope they’re sensitized to the experience of a child,” he says. “One major aspect of confronting bullying is adult intervention, and so often the adults sit on the sidelines and think it’s wrong to intervene. It’s not wrong. You’re an adult. Be one.”
– Diana Nollen