Anyone who forgets to silence their cell phone at the opera will be released
Last week, I got to see The Giver, an opera based on Lois Lowry’s classic novel. It was put on by Project Opera, a program that teaches young singers grades 4-12 to perform in opera. As my friend Lee put it, no wonder we’ve got so much awesome opera in the Twin Cities – we train ’em young! The Giver opera was specially commissioned by the Minnesota Opera, funded by a Kickstarter drive, and entirely sold out before opening night. We were very lucky to get invited to sketch through the dress rehearsal, especially since Lois Lowry herself was there.
I hadn’t read The Giver before I heard about this opera (although I must have read Number The Stars about ten times in middle school), but people had been recommending it to me for years. I’d been on the periphery of so many conversations about this book that I thought I knew enough about it to make reading it redundant. But I couldn’t very well see an opera based on it without having read the book first, right? So a few nights before the dress rehearsal, I downloaded the ebook and read it.
And then I couldn’t get to sleep. I lay awake in bed with the lights on, thinking about Jonas on the sled and the bleak, colorless landscape of the community and Rosemary’s story and the things that would probably qualify me for an early release if I were a character in that world. And then I tried to imagine how the hell this story would translate into opera, and I was finally able to sleep, because here, finally, was something my imagination couldn’t even picture.
It turns out, the solutions to translating The Giver were simple and elegant: a color palette all in gray and beige, a Greek chorus narrating Jonas’s inner life like they were retelling the story for future generations, and mobile scrim screens to project the Giver’s memories onto.
It was perfect. The gray apple was switched out for a red one, the actors froze, Jonas stepped forward to inspect the object while the chorus sang about his discovery, and I was hooked. I had trouble drawing through this opera because it was so engrossing, but I got down a few key scenes.
The relationship between these two was palpable. These actors had less than an hour to show the progression of a year-long mentorship, and they sold me on it. I’d be lying if I said a few of their scenes didn’t leave me teary-eyed. Which reminds me: you know how I said this show was put on by Project Opera? Yeah, the whole cast was actors 10-18 years old. Kids these days, with their talent. It was the most moving performance I saw all season – partly because the material was easier for me to connect to than, say, Werther, but also because it was an amazing cast. I wanted to get the Giver and Jonas’s autographs on my program book after the show, but they were taking notes from the director.
Oh, and did I mention LOIS FREAKING LOWRY WAS THERE? The YA lit nerd in me was making a constant high-pitched noise in my head for much of the evening. Lowry had a casual meet and greet with audience members before the show where she fielded lots of questions about the book and its sequels (Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son, which she says is a whopper of a book from Gabe’s perspective coming later this year). I hung back trying not to trip over my own feet or stammer nonsense sentences, which are my go-to reactions to being in the presence of authors I respect, and was moderately successful. Lowry talked a lot about the reactions she’d gotten from fans and critics of the book and, when asked about the ambiguous ending, smiled and said she had a “Jonas Lives” t-shirt she liked to wear to events at schools.
I am so, so glad I got to go to this event. The Minnesota Opera Company does amazing work, and Project Opera, it turns out, is just as fantastic. I took time out of the hectic end of an already overbooked semester to read the book and see this show, and my only regret is that the show was sold out. If it hadn’t been, I would’ve made everyone I know go see it with me. As is, I guess I’ll just have to tell you to support the opera if you can, keep an eye out for more work by this amazing group of young performers, and go re-read my copy of the novel.