New opera hooks teens into conversation about consent and power

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Alicia Ault and Emily Lukasik in Hook Up; photo by Dahlia Katz

“Consent” means… what, exactly?

Only one in three Canadians knows the answer to this question, conferring hot-button relevance on Hook Up, a new opera by composer Chris Thornborrow and librettist Julie Tepperman. The timely opera for teens explores topical questions of privacy, consent, and power.

A simple Google search will summon an endless scroll of statistics and stories about the prevalence of sexual assault on Canadian college campuses. In “We’re Teaching Consent All Wrong”, Sarah D. Sparks asserts that “we do way too little, way too late” to teach young people about consent. And “what we are doing doesn’t give students the skills they need to navigate adulthood”. In the same piece, Richard Weissbourd, a child psychologist at Harvard University who studies sex education, warns that “we are failing epically in preparing young people for romantic relationships, and it may be the most important thing they do in their lives”. This fact is punctuated by a chilling and related statistic: one in three women will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Locally, the Ontario government’s repeal of the 2015 Health Curriculum has created confusion about what teachers are permitted to teach in schools, in order to promote healthy relationships. Clearly and urgently, young people (especially when first experiencing freedom away from home) need multiple ways to engage with and understand consent. Their ability to cultivate healthy relationships is at stake . . . and why shouldn’t opera be one of those ways?

Julie Tepperman

In fact, Hook Up, “a darkly humourous exploration” of the subject of consent, could be just the right kind of engaging and provocative vehicle to bring this topic to the conversational forefront. A coming-of-age story, it focuses on three young people navigating their first semester at university and being thrust into adulthood. Directed by Richard Greenblatt, the show is presented by the cutting-edge Tapestry Opera (which produced the runaway hit The Overcoat with Canadian Stage last year), in partnership with Theatre Passe Muraille. The cast features musical-theatre heavyweights Emily Lukasik, Alicia Ault, Alexis Gordon, Nathan Carroll, and Jeff Lillico. The creators deem Hook Up an “unflinching examination of issues around consent, shame, and power” and yes, they “imagine it as a catalyst for discussion about difficult topics.”

The opera was born of Ms Tepperman’s and Mr Thornborrow’s shared desire to tell a story that puts “complicated and complex young women at its centre”, while pushing the boundaries of traditional operatic forms to tell a contemporary story. “The opera is set on a college campus, but we believe that rape culture and consent are incredibly pervasive issues throughout society, as evidenced by the groundswell of the #MeToo Movement and the rigorous conversations taking place around the globe, thanks to the strength of women like Christine Blasey Ford.” With sexual assault still a “brutal reality” of modern campus life, they hope Hook Up can be the beginning of another vital, necessary and ongoing conversation “in our homes, schools, communities, and in society at large”.

Ms Tepperman and Mr Thornborrow met at Tapestry Opera’s Composer-Librettist Laboratory (LIBLAB) back in 2013. What began as a seed scene has evolved tremendously. Their initial concept was a 75-minute piece entitled Selfie. At the time, they were motivated by the then-recent suicides of Canadian teenagers Rehtaeh Parsons (April 2013) and Amanda Todd (October 2012) after each had endured endless in-person and online sexual harassment and bullying. “This was the springboard for what would become Selfie, a roughly 75-minute piece that was written and composed over two-and-a-half years.”

After a rigorous process of development and workshops, including sharing with invited audiences (including teachers and teenagers), they found themselves “very stuck”. The scope of their story felt too narrow, so they decided not to continue developing Selfie. In the fall of 2016, director and dramaturge Richard Greenblatt was brought in to help “refocus and reinvigorate” them. At this point, they landed on a broader theme – one that they had found themselves returning to in their conversations and in their research (even while working on Selfie). That theme was rape culture and consent, at large – in particular as they manifest on university campuses. 

Chris Thornborrow; photo by Chris Hutcheson

Given the unsettling nature of these themes, why choose opera for their expression? Opera tends toward “high-stakes scenarios and big emotions” (and its Latin origin means “work”). It was a natural fit for Ms Tepperman and Mr Thornborrow because “this is a high-stakes story”.

To be precise, Hook Up has a unique form somewhere between opera and musical theatre. It is an opera, in that it is “through-composed”, meaning that all the themes are tailored to the action of the show. And like an opera, there are no musical “numbers”, with verses and choruses, as would be the case with a traditional musical. But the plot moves at a faster pace than an opera, and though there is no spoken dialogue (virtually every word is sung), they warn not to expect much traditional operatic singing. Also, unlike traditional opera, the performers are amplified, and the orchestration includes drums, piano and electronics.

Overall, Hook Up is sonically “experimental”, with Mr Thornborrow’s music “pushing the boundaries of traditional operatic forms”: “hardcore opera aficionados will likely accuse us of creating musical theatre, but because there are no traditional musical numbers, musical theatre fans will likely relate to it as contemporary opera!” The result is a musical world that they believe is “accessible, authentic, surprising, and fully supports and reflects the emotional stakes and states of being of the characters and situations.”

In light of some of the difficult subject matter, the creators have included a content warning about the show’s use of explicit language and discussion of sexual violence and sexual consent. “We have planned several post-show talks facilitated by CANVAS Arts Action Programs, an organization that uses arts-inspired programs to educate on gender equity, consent, and LGBQT2S+ inclusion.” Further support in the form of print material will also be available by request at the theatre’s box office.

When it comes to their subject and its groundbreaking aesthetic, Ms Tepperman and Mr Thornborrow seem to have their fingers on the pulse of what teens know and like. The operatic, yet accessible treatment of such an affecting topic should make Hook Up a creative powerhouse that brings new audiences to the artform. Beyond that, it should provoke thought, spark discourse and shed light on the true meaning of “consent.”

Everyone should experience it.

Emily Lukasik, Alexis Gordon, Jeff Lillico; photo by Dahlia Katz

News You Can Use

What: Hook Up (world premiere) by Chris Thornborrow (composer) and Julie Tepperman (librettist); Musical Direction by Jennifer Tung; Dramaturgy and Direction by Richard Greenblatt
Performed by Emily Lukasik (Mindy), Alicia Ault (Cindy), Alexis Gordon (Steph/Mom/Heather), Nathan Carroll (Tyler), Jeff Lillico (Dad/Dude/Duke)

Who: Audiences 14 years of age and older
* Content Warnings: explicit language, discussion of sexual violence, sexual content

When: January 29 – February 9, 2019; Run Time: 90 minutes

Where: Theatre Passe Muraille, 160 Ryerson Avenue, Toronto, ON

Info and Tickets: passemuraille.ca

© 2019 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine

Posted in Opera and Musical Theatre, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , .