Thompson Street Opera opens season with compelling U.S. premiere of tasing tragedy

Fri Sep 13, 2019 at 4:06 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Nathaniel Hill portrays Robert Dziekanski in the U.S. premiere of “I will fly like a bird,” presented by the Thompson Street Opera Company Thursday night at the Athenaeum Theatre. Photo: Kelsey Norris

The American premiere of I will fly like a bird made a suitable work to open the fourth season of Thompson Street Opera Company. One of the many storefront ensembles that have enriched Chicago’s opera scene in recent years, Thompson Street, in particular, has centered their offerings on socially conscious themes.

On the surface, I will fly like a bird, presented Thursday night at the Athenaeum Theatre’s Studio Three, seems ideal for the company since it touches on two hot-button issues: immigration and police brutality. 

Yet the circumstances of the true story of Robert Dziekanski that lies at the heart of the opera—and the sensitive and humane treatment of it by composer John Plant and librettist J. A. Wainwright—are so moving and powerful that it seems a stretch to use the case for personal political tub-thumping. More than anything else, the opera presents a set of unfortunate events that combined to result in a horrifying human tragedy.

In October 2007 Robert Dziekanski flew from his hometown of Gliwice, Poland to Canada to join his mother Zophia in Kamloops, British Columbia. The 40-year-old Polish immigrant had never flown before but the flight progressed without incident.

Upon landing at Vancouver International Airport after a ten-hour flight, Dziekanski—who spoke no English—went through the first customs checkpoint. But then he seemed to become confused and disoriented, wandering the airport for nearly six hours. At one point he became agitated and began acting erratically, yelling and throwing computers and other objects at a Plexiglas screen. Airport security called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Almost immediately after encountering the distraught man, four RCMP officers tased Dziekanski five times in less than three minutes, including after they had handcuffed him and pinned him to the ground. Dziekanski died of a heart attack on the floor of the airport, with the horrifying scene captured by security cameras and filmed by bystanders. (See the Vancouver Sun’s video story for a detailed and well-reported account of the tragedy.)

Composer Plant—who was in attendance—and librettist Wainwright avoid broader polemics and concentrate on the facts of the case, which are damning enough by themselves. Indeed, the opera—concentrating on the loving relationship between Robert and his mother—assumes the dimensions of a concise Greek tragedy.

In five short scenes with two characters, the one-act opera charts Robert and Zophia’s  anticipation of their reunion, Robert’s carousal before his flight, and his confusion and agitation at the airport that led to his fatal tasing by the unseen officers.

Plant’s score—premiered in Halifax in 2012—is most impressive. Scored with skill and economy for six musicians, the Canadian-American composer writes in a direct and attractive idiom. There are lyrical passages for Robert and Zophia—with an occasional hint of Polish folksong in the clarinet—set off by spare, edgy music representing Robert’s confusion, and jarring, strident chords for his fatal encounter with the police.

Nathaniel Hill delivered a powerful, richly characterized performance as Robert. The singer possesses a strong baritone voice and his easy stage presence conveyed the ill-fated immigrant’s naive, simple nature. Yet Hill brought alarming intensity to Robert’s agitation and sudden rage, as he violently throws a metal chair and books against the wall.

Jennifer Barrett was an affecting Zophia, communicating a warm, maternal presence and singing with an ample mezzo voice. (The words of both singers were so clear that the projected surtitles were hardly needed, except to fill in historic notes on the incident.)

Music director Alexandra Enyart and the musicians were excellent advocates for Plant’s compelling score. Enyart led the six-player “orchestra” (clarinet, piano and string quartet) in a taut, flowing performance that brought out the lyricism as well as dramatic bite of Plant’s music.

Ross Kyo Matusuda’s stage direction was just as accomplished. With the musicians placed center stage, having Robert and Zophia on opposite sides of the black box venue reflected their geographical distance. Matsuda was most resourceful in utilizing the small, barren space, as with having Zophia show photos of her son (the real Robert) to audience members in the front row. It was also a nice touch to reflect Robert’s confusion in the airport by having Hill exit and reeenter the theater by different doors.

Also inspired was the idea to fill out the short evening by offering Krzysztof Penderecki’s Clarinet Quartet as a prelude to the 55-minute opera (though it’s debatable whether the admirable young musicians really needed Enyart to conduct this chamber work). In addition to the Polish connection and national flavor, the score’s grim austerity and desolation were surely conveyed by the quartet—clarinetist Lilia Olsen (especially fine), violinist Robert Alvarado Switala, violist Kelsey Hanson and cellist John Rogler—nicely setting the stage for the opera to follow.

I will fly like a bird will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m Sunday at the Athenaeum Theatre’s Studio Three. Jonathan Wilson and Marissa Simmons perform in the Friday and Sunday performances.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Thompson Street Opera opens season with compelling U.S. premiere of tasing tragedy”

  1. Posted Sep 14, 2019 at 12:43 pm by Bernita B Smith

    Many, many compliments, Ross. I’m delighted that your Mom (my “adopted” daughter) shares your experiences w/me.
    Just wish I might have seen the production . . . .

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