Beautiful and heart-wrenching and incredibly real, The Scarlet Ibis is a masterpiece of modern opera. The music of Stefan Weisman with libretto by David Cote gives new life to the 1960 short story by James Hurst of the same name. Performed by the Boston Opera Collaborative in the intimate Pickman Concert Hall at the Longy School of Music, The Scarlet Ibis explores how one’s differences–which can be perceived by some as setbacks–can be a form of strength and beauty to oneself and should be perceived as such by others.
The Scarlet Ibis takes place in the early twentieth century in the swampland of North Carolina. The opera tells the story of Doodle, a physically disabled young boy, and his older brother (just called “Brother”), who is constantly pushing Doodle to become what Brother views as “normal.” Brother and Doodle each have setbacks contrasted with strengths: though Doodle is limited physically, his imagination and creativity soar and his perceptivity and thoughtfulness make him wise beyond his years. For Brother, while his body is able, he lacks the creativity and sensitivity of his younger sibling.
The score, characterized by quiet moments of stunning beauty contrasted with dissonant harmonies in moments of tension, brilliantly expressed each emotional turn of the narrative. The music also captured each characters’ personality, with energetic Brother’s bold and buoyant lines and thoughtful Doodle’s lyrical melodies. The harmonic structure, orchestration, and melodic writing for each scene was carefully crafted to serve the story, demonstrating that Weisman is clearly one of the foremost opera composers of our time.
Ann Fogler (Brother) bursts with energy, perfectly capturing the many moods and attitudes of a precocious young boy. Cote (libretto) has written fully three-dimensional characters and Fogler was able to translate Brother’s every complexity from the page to the stage. Brother’s jealousy for the attention that Doodle receives drives Brother to push Doodle, sometimes cruelly, to his limits. Brother rarely takes the time to appreciate what Doodle offers to the world, choosing instead to constantly compare Doodle to himself and his own abilities. Fogler leans into Brother’s cruel and demanding tendencies, yet, aided by the genius of Cote’s libretto, Fogler shows that Brother’s every action is driven by his own insecurity and pain. And thus, she remains likable throughout the piece, always playing Brother with humanity and heart.
Doodle, portrayed onstage as a small and delicate puppet, was sung and animated by Lucas Coura, whose angelic voice and carefully intentional puppetry breathed life into the Doodle figure. Roxanna Myhrum’s puppetry direction clearly developed the Doodle puppet to be viewed as the personification of the character and Coura was able to express Doodle’s every emotion while never drawing focus away from the puppet. The production team’s choice to portray Doodle as a puppet further characterized his physical weakness and difference from the rest of the cast.
Weisman’s choice to write the part of Doodle for a man singing in falsetto while Brother is written as a “pants role” for a woman, was brilliant and told its own story about power and the voice. It is common for young male characters to be portrayed by women, as boy voices are typically in a higher register, which was the case with Fogler’s portrayal of Brother. However, Doodle, also a young boy, was vocalized by Coura singing in his falsetto–a method of vocal production in which men sing in a register that is higher than their typical range. When men sing in falsetto, they are typically unable to project their voices to their regular volume, producing a beautiful sound that can be characterized as “weaker.” This was perfect for Doodle and audibly captured his frailty in comparison with Fogler, whose strong, full voice was, at moments, able to overpower Coura’s.
Though Brother does not possess the intuitiveness, thoughtfulness, and intelligence of his younger brother, he wields much of the power in their relationship as Doodle’s caretaker with the ability to trap Doodle in situations where he must stretch himself physically in order to escape. Throughout the opera, Brother is constantly putting Doodle in these situations with the goal of strengthening him physically to make Doodle what Brother perceives as “normal.” However, Brother’s failure to understand Doodle’s identity as anything beyond his physical self is a constant source of frustration for Doodle, whose sense and love of self is more closely tied with his colorful imagination and brilliant mind. As such, the opera thoughtfully considers the idea that just because a person is limited physically, does not mean they want to change how they are. Strength is often found in one’s differences thus the goal should not be to change a person who is different to make them more “normal” but rather to change how a “normal” person reacts to and perceives said differences.
The Scarlet Ibis will next be performed at the Studebaker Theater in Chicago, IL on February 16, 21, and 24, 2019. I would highly recommend attending this beautiful opera.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.