Somtow Sucharitkul's "Snow Dragon" roars across the stage with passion and elegance
Child abuse is an unusual topic to be at the centre of an opera. But then Somtow Sucharitkul is not exactly a “usual” composer.
His latest oeuvre, “The Snow Dragon”, which opened last weekend at the Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, demonstrated what live theatre is all about – not the form or design or lights or actors or even the singers but the story.
Somtow composed the opera based on his own short story “The Fallen Country”. The subject: abuse of a child by an adult. And while there have been countess books, movies and plays written about child abuse, they usually focus on the perpetrator and how we as a society should deal with him.
This opera moves the focus to all the victims, and there is more than one.
Billy Binder, played by Luke Brotherhood, is the young boy who has been victimised. But Dora Max, sung by Colleen Brooks, is also a victim. A counsellor who has seen too much too often, she has lost her sense of compassion and confidence in helping children like Billy.
After each period of abuse, Billy retreats to “The Fallen Country” to seek succour from the horrors of his life. He finds solace but is unable to find any outlet for the rage that all but overwhelms him.
His imaginary place is not a circus or field of dreams, but a place where emotion has no place. It’s an easy place not to feel anything and is therefore a welcome spot for a character who suffers the emotional trauma of physical abuse.
If he can’t feel, maybe he won’t feel.
The country is ruled by a Ringmaster (Dan Kempson) the embodiment of Billy’s tormentor, and it is in this land that Billy meets “The Snow Dragon” (Cassandra Black).
She is everything that is missing in Billy’s life as well as in Dora’s.
She is the mother who protects him and guides him with her wisdom. She is also the angel that Dora wishes she could be if she could only fight through her repression.
It is the Snow Dragon who begins and then gently guides everyone through the process of healing. They all take small steps towards something better. Her influence swarms over the ringmaster, Dora, Billy, his mother and others in a world where revenge is the coin of the realm.
Vengeance is not the passport to an end here. It is left to Billy, near the end of the show, to sing, “I have no more anger left. No hate.”
This opera is sung in English, but it could just as easily have been sung in Thai. It is through the music and the story that we are so moved. The final scene, when Dora asks if Billy will flinch if she hugs him, is so filled with tension and drama that I could barely feel my heart beating.
Milwaukee has a rich panorama of theatrical offerings. But the best are the programmes that tell a story, and storytellers are a rare breed indeed. Both Viswa Subbaraman, the artistic director at Skylight and music director for this show, and Michael Pink at Milwaukee Ballet, have set the bar high for imagination and courage.