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Novel Gets New Life Through Opera

If you hear the word opera and think of a stuffy art form - with horned helmets and a large singing lady - think again. A new opera, co-commissioned by the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, is based on Lois Lowry’s The Giver - a popular but controversial novel about a dystopian society.

Turning a Novel into an Opera

New York-based composer and librettist Susan Kander has created a niche writing original operas for young adults, exploring themes from the Underground Railroad to girl bullies. Kander describes Lois Lowry’s The Giver as the first book for many young people that truly talks up to them.

"In fact one of the reasons that I chose this book is that opera is at its best when it’s talking about the gigantic issues – love and death," says Kander. "Nothing could be more appropriate as a choice for writing an opera in my opinion."

The Giver tells the story of Jonas, who’s born into a community where the goal is sameness. There’s no conflict, no pain, and no color. Twelve is a crucial age when each child is assigned a role. And Jonas is apprenticed to The Giver, who holds all the memories.

"It was fascinating to go in and choose what I wanted to pursue, what I wanted to blow up and look at more closely," says Kander. "(I chose) things that leant themselves particularly to musicalization."

Personal Experiences Inform The Giver

Author Lois Lowry says the story has been adapted for the stage, but not for opera. Until now.

Lowry’s written 40 books – and she says The Giver probably draws on the most sources - including childhood years spent in Japan after World War II (her father was a career military officer). She was 11 when her family moved from Pennsylvania, and she says she expected living overseas to be very different. But her parents chose an American style house in a small walled community.  

"I used to sneak out of the place we lived and go out by myself often and go into the Tokyo that surrounded the place we lived," says Lowry. "I was attempting to experience something that was not the same, as I described in The Giver."

A Greek Chorus Frames the Story

At a Monday night rehearsal at the Lyric’s Opera Center at 18th and Charlotte, the cast of more than 30, mostly children ages 7 to 18, and a few adult cast members sing as a Greek chorus. It’s used as a framework to bring the audience into the story.

9th grader Jayke Workman, 15, plays the role of Jonas. He says he’d read The Giver in school – and did a project focusing on Jonas in 8th grade.

"The music by Susan Kander is really great – but it’s definitely challenging," says Workman. "And also, the character development. Jonas has never experienced color or love or any real emotion, in the book and the show. And no one has in the community. And so, it’s hard to portray that."

In this scene, Workman (Jonas) and his friends are throwing an apple back and forth. He stops and stares at the apple when it glimmers and shows a bit of color, something that doesn’t exist in their society.

Workman (as Jonas) sings, "Asher...does anything seem strange to you? About the apple?"

Education Department Creates Community Ties

The Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s education department celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. And education director Paula Winans says when they commission a work, they consider title recognition – and if it’s well-loved. She says The Giver speaks directly to youth, but the issues are universal.

According to Winans, "We often ask ourselves in situations, even in present day life: Would I have the courage to stand up, or would I go along with the group in something that’s a very serious situation? And Jonas has courage."

Winans says the education program has created its own community over the years, of young people and their families. She describes it as a place where children can find acceptance, where they can shine, and also find courage.

The Giver, co-commissioned by the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and Minnesota Opera, runs January 12 - 14, 2012 in Kansas City, Missouri. School performances: January 12, 2012, 10 am and 12:15 pm; January 13, 2012, 10 am and 12:15 pm. Public performance: January 14, 2012, 2 pm. Rose Theatre at Rockhurst High School, 9301 State Line Road, Kansas City, Mo. Author Lois Lowry will speak after each performance.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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