No ballpoint pens at the opera
This week, I tagged along with the Black Hat Collective to sketch through a dress rehearsal of Doubt, the latest production of the Minnesota Opera. Thanks to MN Opera’s eagerness to work with bloggers, social media butterflies, and comic artists, this was my seventh opera with them in the past three seasons. I had never seen an opera before settling into the back of the theater with a book light and a sketchbook for Mary Stuart, and now I look forward to every new show like it was a new Marvel movie. Except, y’know, with less fan fiction.
(Side note: I just checked, and there are 10 fics for the 2008 movie of Doubt on AO3. Bless you, internet.)
I was especially looking forward to Doubt because it was a world premiere – an opera commissioned by the MN Opera’s New Works Initiative based on John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Award-winning play. Shanley, who wrote the opera as well, and Douglas J. Cuomo, who wrote the music, did a quick Q&A at the reception before the show. Hearing about their collaborative process was fascinating. The way they described it, it seems co-writing an opera is very similar to the creative collaboration I’ve been doing lately in co-writing a comic with some friends: building a shared language is key, whether you’re talking about arias or panel layouts, and you have to be willing to be thoroughly schooled by your collaborator when something isn’t working.
Doubt did not disappoint. After The Giver opera, it might be my favorite show I’ve seen so far.
Doubt takes place in a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, where head nun Sister Aloysius begins to suspect well-liked Father Flynn of abusing the school’s first black student. It’s a nuanced story with no concrete answers – you leave the theater unsure if either side is right. It’s a powerful, emotional show, and weirdly…funny? Doubt is certainly not a comedy, but it’s the only opera I’ve seen that had a room full of teenage boys chanting the word “booger” in it or a main character who’s so staunchly old school she refuses to let students use these new-fangled ballpoint pens.
Or radios. Or hair clips. Sister Aloysius is not a fan of anything convenient or fun, basically. Meanwhile, Father Flynn is the cool basketball coach who teaches boys about dating and wants the school Christmas pageant to feature “Frosty the Snowman” (or, as Sister Aloysius calls it, “Pagan propaganda”).
Caught between the two of them is Sister James, a young, innocent nun who doesn’t know whether to believe her superior or the charismatic priest. I wound up with a whole page of Sister James sketches. (Process note: This time around, I did my sketches in ArtRage on my iPad and imported the ones I liked into Manga Studio to finish.)
Sister James is constantly trying to please everyone, and Sister Aloysius is constantly pulling her into her battles as backup. Worst backup ever. See: highly subtextual conversation about whether Father Flynn likes sugar in his tea. “Sugar?” Sister Aloysius asks her colleagues. Father Flynn and Sister James responses, respectively:
By the end of the show, a fantastic role reversal has started: Sister James is able to choose a side she believes in and stand up for it, and Sister Aloysius, once so convinced of her own moral high ground, is haunted by doubt. She worries that, like in Father Flynn’s sermon on gossip, she’ll find God pointing a disapproving finger at her for her actions.
Is Father Flynn a guilty man rightfully punished or an innocent man whose name has been sullied? In the end, the question is left hanging.