Cute & catchy: The Schoolyard CarmenReview
The Carmen of Bizet’s 1875 opera sought a certain kind of freedom, the kind that would liberate her from the law, and from the definition of “permissible woman”. Very different, yet comparable in nobility, the Carmen of Shoestring Opera’s The Schoolyard Carmen seeks freedom from the shackles of the schoolday grind.
Based in Toronto, Shoestring Opera is a mobile, young-audience-friendly company that adapts traditional opera for school-aged listeners. Their touring school productions of the 2017⁄18 season include The Schoolyard Carmen, Shoestring’s Hansel and Gretel, and Shoestring’s Magic Flute. Their Carmen came to this summer’s Toronto Summer Music Festival, playing at a Walter Hall full of young people (and a few less-young).
Perhaps to the relief of concerned opera-savvy adults, The Schoolyard Carmen features highlights of Bizet’s music, underscoring an essentially new story. We learn that Carmen is a young girl who has only recently arrived in Canada; she lives with her uncle, and though there are hints at an unhappy recent history, we don’t learn the details of Carmen’s parents. The 45-minute opera chronicles Carmen’s first-day-of-school jitters, her enounter with a not-so-nice schoolmate, and her first trip to the Vice Principal’s office.
Soprano Gillian Grossman plays the spunky, headstrong Carmen, and baritone Janaka Welihinda takes on triple duty as Carmen’s uncle, her Vice Principal, and as Toreo, the cocky schoolyard antagonizer that lands Carmen in trouble. Pianist Jiayin Liu and cellist (and Shoestring Opera executive producer) Anne Rankin had orchestra duty, and at times doubled as chorus voices.
When you think about it, Carmen is a great musical pick for young audiences; the numbers are filled with dance and rhythm, making them easy to start a round of clapping along. Plus, the tunes are just that famous that even young kids seemed to stir with recognition when hits like the “Habanera” or the “Toreador Song” began.
What was most interesting was to see what the kids responded to within Schoolyard Carmen. An obvious truth in hindsight, the audience lit up in response to seeing things onstage that ring true in their lives. Shoestring Opera’s Carmen adaptation included plenty of contemporary childhood realities: pretending to be sick to get out of school, dealing with unpleasant classmates, the frustration with unfair adult intervention, having to go to school every day, and even peanut allergies. There seemed to be no pandering, no patronising nature to the show; Grossman and Welihinda were brilliant at embodying young people (or their adults), without resorting to gimmickry or drawing out a comedic moment ad nauseam.
Hardcore opera fans will also get a kick out of a show like Schoolyard Carmen. It’s entertaining to hear how the music is re-purposed, and there’s an added layer of humour comparing the aria contexts of Bizet’s work, and Shoestring Opera’s. The “Toreador Song” was basically the same - a cocky kid telling everyone how great he really is - and Carmen’s sombre Card Aria retains its fateful mood as the young newcomer to school ponders her destiny while sitting expectantly in the Vice Principal’s office.