A project intended to teach Douglas County kids about bullying uses an old medium with a new message.
“There I was, hanging with some of my peeps,” a soprano sings in “Stop, Bully!,” a short opera by Umpqua Community College music instructor Jason Heald. “A bully appeared. He gives me the creeps.”
The 35-minute musical was performed three times Thursday for elementary students, including at a morning assembly at Hucrest Elementary in Roseburg. Heald plans to take the show to more schools next month, he says to expose students to a new art form, and take on a problem that haunts many children.
“With music being cut in schools, most students never see a true live performance,” he said. “And there are ways in which verbal communication can’t reach kids as effectively.”
Heald wrote the work in 2011 for the Shreveport Opera, where he has a personal connection. He says it’s been performed in Louisiana more than 100 times.
In the local show, UCC music instructor Troy Pennington portrays the eponymous, Viking-helmeted bully. He and the other actors sing in traditional opera voices, with emotion and vibrato.
“My name is Big Bad Bully and I rule this school,” the tenor Pennington sings. “I think everyone here is a big, fat fool.”
“I don’t like geeks. I don’t like nerds. If you’re one of them, we’re going to have words.”
In the opera, Bully applies his torment to a pair of girls, Sky and Paige, played by Janene Nelson and Heather Holmquest, respectively.
“We are kids just like you. We have many, many friends,” they harmonized. “We like to hang out most weekends.”
Nelson, a mezzo-sopranao, is actually a music professor at Western Oregon University, and Holmquest, a soprano, a graduate student in music at the University of Oregon.
Heald recruited the cast, including accompanist Donna Spicer, after winning a grant from the Oregon Community Foundation. The Dr. John William and Betty Long Unruh Fund goes toward art programs in Douglas County.
The libretto’s plot is simple to follow and the characters are broadly drawn. Paige is established as a bookworm, and Sky dresses a little differently from other kids. Bully wastes no time picking on them. He threatens Paige for reading and throws Sky’s glasses on the ground.
“Shaky knees and teary eyes. I feel the best when the geek girls cry,” Pennington sings.
Hucrest’s child development specialist Pat Wafer-Gukeisen said kids sometimes face harassment when they start wearing glasses, or otherwise begin to stand out from their peers.
She said she was unsure at first how the play would go over.
“I truly did not know how they would respond to opera, and I was impressed.”
Kids laughed, applauded and took part in call-and-response. Thanks to an introduction given by Spicer, some learned a new word — bravo — which some used during act breaks.
“It was cool,” said Brady Watkins, 10. “Instead of just calling the bully ‘bad,’ they talked about the different ways to stop bullying.”
Fifth-grade student Kate Droscher said she sometimes sees labeling and name-calling at Hucrest, but the opera showed her that going to the principal is not always “tattle-taling.”
“I just really give my compliments to the singers,” she said. “They did a really good job.”
Sky and Paige eventually call their parents, who insist the two go to their principal.
In the script, the part of principal is played by a volunteer. At Hucrest, it was teacher Matt Hall, with Pennington crouching behind him providing hand movements and vocals, to the apparent delight of the students.
After a talking-to, Bully apologizes in song and asks for forgiveness. In the end, it’s revealed his motive was simple.
“All I ever wanted was some friends to play with after school.”
• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.