An interactive opera on diabetes raises awareness

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You don’t have to like Les Noces de Figaro or La Traviata to appreciate the fact that, for the first time, a new opera retraces the trajectory of life with diabetes.

It is the creation of Vancouver-based composer Michael James Park, who has lived with type 1 diabetes (T1D) since 1991. His opera, titled “Diagnosis: Diabetes” tells the story of a newly diagnosed boy named Charlie, following him and his parents through from the beginning, as the family first learns to live with this disease, until the later years, when Charlie is middle-aged and struggling with diabetes on his own. .

Divided into two main parts, this is an hour-long interactive chamber opera, meaning it is designed for a smaller number of singers and performers in a more intimate setting. There are also two additional scenes framing the main narrative, created as a ‘game show inspired’ intermezz where the audience participates with some of the diabetes information that has been shared, as Charlie and his parents find out about life with it. diabetes.

The piece also features subtitles with the songs, to promote understanding beyond the music itself.

It will be posted online throughout November to mark National Diabetes Awareness Month.

DiabetesMine recently spoke with Park about his job, learning that he had based much of Charlie’s character on his own life with T1D which started at age 6. (We had a delightful Zoom chat, with Park Caesar’s parrot also part of the conversation.)

Park told DiabetesMine his diabetes-themed opera had been in the works for years before he finally made his debut as a live performance with the Erato Ensemble in Vancouver in November 2015.

November 2021 marks the first wider public sharing of “Diagnosis: Diabetes” to honor Diabetes Awareness Month and World Diabetes Day (November 14) this year which happens to be the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin. in a Toronto laboratory in July 1921..

“As I was writing opera as a doctoral thesis, I also had to do a lot of research on similar works… I was able to confirm that there had never been an interactive opera written before,” said he declared. “There had never been an opera about diabetes, or even about disease in general, other than the general theme of mental illness as ‘madness’ in theater and opera.”

Michel Park

A composer and pianist, Park has spent his life playing and writing music, studying it and making it his career. He has performed primarily across Canada as well as in New York and Boston, and Park is artistic director of the Vancouver-based Erato Ensemble and is one of the founders and co-directors of the Art Song Lab initiative. for contemporary art song. He also did a popular TED talk on Disease Through Music.

As Park describes his passion, his music aims to provide audiences with an experience that goes beyond the realm of traditional concerts and what they might normally see in an opera performance.

He first wrote 15-20 minutes of music while in college, and he wanted it to be fun, so he made it interactive. From there, it grew into a bigger idea after seeing an online diabetes quiz that featured specific medical information about the disease. The multiple choice questions were very engaging, and that led him to the idea of ​​creating an interactive opera where the audience could participate, and the answers could be sung.

He started with a workshop presentation in 2010, and kept the idea in mind as he continued his studies and work, composing and teaching music. Eventually he returned during his doctoral work, and he began to expand it into a larger live performance piece.

“In writing the opera, I needed a dramatic point in this work of art,” he said. “It can’t just be ‘this is diabetes and this is my everyday life.’ It is not artistically convincing. I finally got to where I was in my own diabetes management. The grand finale is where the character sings “I’m fine” while still dealing with your own mortality in living with diabetes. This constant battle of the present versus the long term things in diabetes.

By working with Erato Ensemble, Park was able to make a first film in 2015, and he said the audience feedback was very positive. Most of the time he heard people excited to see something about diabetes on stage presented in a way it had never been before.

Over 80 people attended Erato Ensemble’s performance at the time, their largest crowd ever and a significant attendance figure for a group of this size performing new music.

“It gave me the energy to see that this shouldn’t end after just one performance,” Park said.

Over the years and as the 100th anniversary of insulin approaches in 2021, Park has worked with various diabetes organizations to promote the work and raise awareness. Her opera is broadcast live by various diabetes organizations like JDRF and British Columbia Diabetes throughout the month, as well as an online presentation by the American Diabetes Association on World Diabetes Day.

“One of my big goals in sharing this more widely is to show that you can connect with diabetes in an artistic way,” Park said. “Even though this is a character’s story and his version of living with diabetes, people with all kinds of invisible illnesses have spoken to me and told me the message is so universal. This is what I want and have to share with the world.

He hopes to find a partner who could help expand the reach of “Diagnosis: Diabetes” by eventually turning it into an ongoing animation or performance that raises awareness of T1D.

You can watch this opera on diabetes online here, as well as see more information about it at www.michaelpark.ca/diabetesopera.


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