Monday, October 3, 2016

"Even superheroes need prom dates"/ Flight 571 into an opera

Sept. 10, 2016 "Even superheroes need prom dates": I cut out this article by Mark Medley in the Globe and Mail on Jun. 11, 2015:

A number of years ago, Jillian Tamaki contributed a comic to Strange Tales II, a Marvel anthology in which indie cartoonists were given free reign over some of the publisher’s most-famous characters.

Tamaki, who admits she “knows nothing about that genre,” chose a particularly overlooked character, Dazzler, a pop starlet able to channel sound into energy beams and who was created as the result of a marketing tie-in between Marvel and a music label in the late seventies.

As she worked on the strip, Tamaki quickly discovered she wasn’t interested in Dazzler’s superhero career, but what happened when she took off her mask – her relationship with her boyfriend, for instance, and her struggle to make it as a singer.

“I was more interested in her regular life,” says Tamaki, sitting in a Toronto coffee shop one afternoon earlier this spring.

Drawn to the idea of the ordinary lives of extraordinary people, Tamaki began drawing a strip about a group of unusually gifted students and posting them on her blog. SuperMutant Magic Academy, which was recently published by Drawn and Quarterly, includes almost all of the Ignatz Award-winning webcomics she produced during the following four years.

Art School Confidential meets X-Men, SuperMutant Magic Academy chronicles the drama-filled lives of a group of teenage students as they try to make sense of both their emotions and, to a lesser extent, their superpowers. Her students aren’t worried about saving the world, but getting a date to prom. There’s a reason why so many comic book superheroes are teens – it’s the perfect metaphor for puberty.

“Your body is out of control, and your emotions are out of control, and you don’t know what’s happening to you,” says the 35-year-old Tamaki. “You’re going through monumental changes, but on the outside you look like an awkward, bored kid.”

Using the fantastic as a prism through which to filter adolescence isn’t a particularly novel idea – see Potter, Harry. Tamaki, however, wasn’t just influenced by the likes of X-Men, whose Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters is a far cry from Tamaki’s own mutant academy.

Rather, her work draws on that most Canadian of educational institutions, Degrassi High. (“I watched a lot of Degrassi: The Next Generation, too,” she adds.) In fact, SuperMutant Magic Academy’s climactic scene taking place, of course, during prom – was inspired by the Degrassi made-for-TV movie School’s Out.

Degrassi is in all my work,” she says. “It was on every day after school … I just loved it. I loved how it was simultaneously corny and earnest.”
Unlike her teen creations, which include an immortal boy and a Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast who can also shoot lasers out of his eyes and hands, Tamaki, born in Ottawa and raised in Calgary, had a fairly normal school experience.

“I hated it at the time, but I really didn’t have a difficult time,” she says. “I wasn’t bullied or anything like that. But I just was ready to be done. I couldn’t wait to have some sort of agency, where you could choose who you wanted to spend your time with, and how to spend it.”

After graduating from the Alberta College of Art and Design, and spending a couple of years working for the Edmonton-based video game developer BioWare, Tamaki moved to New York, where she spent the next decade. When she left Canada in 2005, she was still a young artist trying to establish her career; she’s now one of the most-celebrated Canadian cartoonists of her generation.

Her breakout came in 2008 with the publication of Skim, about a Japanese-Canadian teen goth who falls in love with her English teacher. Created with her cousin, the novelist Mariko Tamaki, the book sparked a minor controversy after Mariko was nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award for her writing, while Jillian was overlooked for her illustrations.

Last year, the pair reunited for the remarkable This One Summer, a coming-of-age story about two friends caught between childhood and adolescence, which earned them both a Caldecott Honor (the first graphic novel to do so) and a Printz Award. (And, in a bit of redress, Tamaki’s illustrations for This One Summer earned her a Governor General’s Literary Award.)

But comics represent just a portion of Tamaki’s creative output.

“I have many irons in the fire,” she says. “I’m very against putting all my eggs in one basket.”
Tamaki also works as a commercial illustrator and a freelance book designer. (Her cover for a new edition of Les Misérables, which arrived in bookstores earlier this year, is particularly striking.)

The reasons, she says, are “mostly economic.” Comics just don’t pay very well, though she concedes they do seem “more glamorous, because you get a book out of it at the end. But it’s not a very lucrative endeavour. They’re more of an investment, in various ways – that’s how I view them. Illustration and commercial work is obviously more lucrative. I think it’s really important for artists to talk about the economics of it, and talk about how to sustain an artistic life, and the realities of that, because I think that people come into it thinking just because you’ve had a book published, you’ve made it, or something like that.”

The question, she says, is, “Would you do the thing if you had to get a quote-unquote ‘regular job?’ It’s a good question. And I fully think there’s a possibility I might need to teach in high school some time in my future. Life is really long, and success today doesn’t meant success for the rest of your life.”

 "A composer turns the tragedy of Flight 571 into an opera": I cut out this article by Marsha Lederman in the Globe and Mail on Jun. 11, 2015:

The first thing that comes to mind regarding the crash of Flight 571 in the Andes likely has to do with the method of survival for those who made it. With food and hopes of rescue disappearing, members of a Uruguayan rugby team famously kept themselves alive by eating the flesh of fellow passengers who had died.

Two months after the October, 1972, crash, two of the survivors – Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa – trekked from the glacier 3,650 metres above sea level across the mountains for days to find help.

Because of their incredible, superhuman efforts under treacherous circumstances, 14 other survivors were ultimately airlifted to safety – 72 days after the crash. This was survival against all odds by brave, strategizing – and starving – victims who transformed despair into determination.

But the narrative was quickly hijacked by the sensational reports of how the group had managed to do it – cannibalism.
There is so much more to the story. And now Vancouver composer Lloyd Burritt is telling it, in a new opera.

Miracle Flight 571, which will be sung publicly for the first time this weekend in Vancouver, is adapted from the memoir Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home written by Parrado (with Vince Rause).

“Nando was horrified by the sensationalism of the cannibalism … and so he decided as a rebuttal to write his own book,” Burritt says. “So this opera is Nando’s opera.”

Burritt is a retired high school music teacher who turned to writing opera 15 years ago. His early works include The Dream Healer, based on Timothy Findley’s Pilgrim. A few months after The Dream Healer’s world premiere in 2008, a friend gave Burritt Parrado’s book as a gift. She inscribed it: “The music is in the pages.”

Burritt heard it. “It totally grabbed my spirit,” he says. He contacted Parrado to obtain the rights.

Burritt, who has just turned 75, has an interest in human-against-nature survival stories. His own mother survived an avalanche on Mount Seymour in 1942 when he was 2. And he is a climber himself, who has climbed to 3,000 metres.

“I’ve done most of the major mountain ranges [in B.C.] with food and a backpack and a friend and nobody else,” he says. “I have a zest of wanting to find myself in nature and alone – and so I can understand some of the severity.”

In Miracle Flight 571, Burritt, who composed the music and wrote the libretto, focuses on the heroics displayed by Parrado (now a motivational speaker) as well as Canessa. Parrado’s mother and younger sister, both of whom died as a result of the crash, are also principal characters.

The chamber opera will be performed by an a cappella choral group accompanied by piano, horns and sound effects on Sunday, ahead of a world premiere staging about a year from now at the University of Toronto.

The work treats the cannibalism as a mass, in one of the opera’s shortest scenes. But the means of survival inevitably becomes a topic of conversation when discussing the project – and Burritt understandably can get his back up when asked about it.

“May I please turn the question around and say, ‘What would you do if you were a teenager?’ Nando was 22; there were a few alumni that went on this trip. If you were of that age and your plane crashed on the glacier at 12,000 feet, what would you do? The men that did partake survived. The ones that didn’t, died. … Roberto … was in pre-med and he said to them, ‘Without protein we’re goners and it looks like they’ve abandoned the air search. What are we going to do?’ What would you do? That’s what I say to most people that ask the question.”

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