Selfie is a work in progress by Chris Thornborrow and Julie Tepperman. It’s still incomplete and the performances over the last couple of days were workshops designed to elicit audience feedback. It had its genesis at the 2013 LibLab and it’s come a long way. The original sketch of two teenagers texting each other is turning into an hour long piece about cyberbullying. It’s a rather disturbing exploration of how technology allows teenagers to do all those things which teenagers do with even less “supervision” than ever. In this case a manipulative girl (Cindy played by Larissa Koniuk) tries to make up for her split from her rather feckless boyfriend (Devon played by Asitha Tennekoon) by engineering a split between her friend Mindy (Meher Pavri) and her bloke Tyler (Giovanni Spanu). The result is a massive on-line slut shaming campaign against the fifth character Heather who has no real identity or agency until the very last scene. Adults encountered along the way are portrayed as clueless, ineffective or bureaucratically indifferent.
Linguistically it’s mostly in 11th grade textspeak. I haven’t had a lot to do with teenagers for four or five years now and so I’m no expert on a dialect that evolves faster than fruit flies but others more knowledgeable than myself said it rang true. The music is an interesting mix of popular forms, more or less obvious internet sound references and some more artsy elements. It’s easy to listen to and I understand where Chris is coming from in trying to write something that will resonate beyond the traditional opera audience. Yesterday we heard it in piano score (extremely well played by Michael Shannon) with some electronic elements. Chris said afterwards that moving forward he would like to up the electronic element. I think that makes sense for all kinds of reasons. I also like that it does have a couple of ensemble numbers. So many new operas are just a play set to musical accompaniment.
It’s really a rather powerful piece even with some plot elements somewhat unresolved and some music still to be written but I guess what I couldn’t really answer for myself, even after all the post performance discussion is “who/what is it for?”. I can’t see it being produced as part of a conventional opera season; even a contemporary oriented one like Tapestry’s. Is it a didactic piece? For kids? For teachers? For parents? And if any of the above how will it ever get performed? Given the language involved (not for the linguistically squeamish) I can’t imagine it being seen in Ontario schools and, if not there, where? Lots of questions and few answers which, I guess, is why things like this need to be workshopped.
Just an afterword on much I love this process. I think it makes perfect sense to elicit feedback on new works in progress. I really wonder about the wisdom of the “conventional” process of handing out a commission then coming back four years later and throwing a work into rehearsal and hoping for the best. I really appreciate the chance to be (a very small) part of the creative process and I love watching people make music, so skillfully, on minimal rehearsal time.