You don’t need to love The Marriage of Figaro or La Traviata to appreciate the fact that, for the time first ever, a new opera portrays the trajectory of life with diabetes.
It’s the creation of Vancouver composer Michael James Park, who’s 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 the beginning, as the family first learns to live with this condition, to the later years when Charlie is middle-aged and dealing with diabetes on his own.
Divided into two main parts, this is written as an hour-long interactive chamber opera, meaning it’s 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” intermezzi where the audience participates with some of the diabetes information that’s been shared, as Charlie and his parents learn about life with diabetes.
The piece also features closed captions with the songs, to foster more understanding beyond just the music itself.
It will be streaming online throughout November to mark National Diabetes Awareness Month.
DiabetesMine spoke with Park recently about his work, learning that he based much of the Charlie character on his own life with T1D that began at 6 years old. (We had a delightful Zoom chat, with Park’s parrot Caesar also being a vocal part of the conversation.)
Park told DiabetesMine that his diabetes-themed opera had been years in the making before it finally made its initial debut as a live performance by Vancouver’s Erato Ensemble in November 2015.
November 2021 marks the first broader public sharing of “Diagnosis: Diabetes” to honor Diabetes Awareness Month and World Diabetes Day (Nov.14) in this year that happens to be the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin in a Toronto lab in July 1921.
“Since I was writing the opera as my doctoral thesis, I also had to do a lot of research into similar works… I was able to confirm that there had never been an interactive opera written before,” he said. “There had also never been any opera about diabetes, or even illness in general, aside from the general theme of mental illness as ‘madness’ in theater and opera.”
A composer and pianist, Park has spent his life playing and writing music as well as studying it and turning that into his career. He’s performed largely throughout Canada as well as New York and Boston, and Park serves as artistic director for the Vancouver-based Erato Ensemble, and is a founder and co-director of the Art Song Lab initiative for contemporary art song. He’s also done a popular TED Talk on experiencing disease through music.
As Park describes his passion, his music aims to give audiences an experience that goes beyond the realm of traditional concert-going and what they might normally see in an opera performance.
He first wrote 15 to 20 minutes of music during his time in college, and he wanted it to be fun, so he made it interactive. From there, it expanded into a bigger idea after seeing a diabetes questionnaire online that presented specific medical information about the condition. The multiple-choice questions were very engaging, and that led to his idea to create an interactive opera where the audience could participate, and the answers could be sung.
He began with a workshop presentation in 2010, and kept the idea in mind as he continued his studies and work, composing and teaching music. Eventually it came back when doing his doctoral work, and he began expanding it into a larger live performance piece.
“In writing the opera, I needed a dramatic point in this artwork,” he said. “It can’t be just ‘here’s diabetes and this is my day-to-day life.’ That’s not artistically compelling. What I ended up coming to is the point where I was at in my own diabetes management. The big finale is where the character sings “I am fine” while always underneath dealing with your own mortality in life with diabetes. That constant battle of the present versus long-term stuff in diabetes.”
Working with Erato Ensemble, Park was able to direct a debut in 2015, and he said the audience feedback was very positive. Mostly, he heard from people being excited about seeing something on diabetes on stage presented in a way it hadn’t been before.
More than 80 people attended the Erato Ensemble performance at the time, their largest crowd ever and a significant attendance figure for a group of that size performing new music.
“That gave me the energy to see that this shouldn’t just end after one performance,” Park said.
As the years went on and we approached the 100th anniversary of insulin in 2021, Park worked with various diabetes organizations to promote the work and raise awareness. His opera is being live-streamed 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 broadly is to show that you can connect with diabetes artistically,” Park said. “As much as this is one character’s story and version of life with diabetes, I’ve had people with all types of invisible illnesses talk to me and say the message is so universal. That’s what I want and need to share with the world.”
He hopes to find a partner who could help expand the reach of “Diagnosis: Diabetes” by possibly turning it into an animation or a continuing performance that raises awareness on T1D.