A Halifax poet and playwright disturbed by the tragic images and death of Robert Dziekanski has written an opera about how he imagined the Polish immigrant’s life.
“It just reduces him to a kind of brutal reality image,” J.A. Wainwright says of the cellphone video that is still posted on the Internet, showing the 40-year-old newcomer to Canada jolted five times by taser-wielding RCMP officers at the Vancouver airport in October, 2007. “I got tired of seeing him die,” Wainwright says. “I wanted to see him live.”
And live he does, through Wainwright’s opera, which he hopes will “elevate him out of being fixed in that rather brutal reality.” He deserved a lot more, the playwright says.
Called I Will Fly Like a Bird: A Tribute to Robert Dziekanski, the work is a concert opera in five scenes. Its title comes from a line in a letter that Dziekanski had written to his mother, Zofia Cisowski, just before he left for Canada. “I will fly like a bird tomorrow,” he wrote. He had never been on an airplane before.
The nearly hour-long opera features only two performers, portraying Robert and his mother. There are no props or costumes, nor do they act. Rather, the two stand at opposite ends of the stage and engage in a musical interaction that Wainwright describes as “a kind of telepathic dialogue.”
The imagined figures of son and mother never connect onstage, just as the two did not on that day in Vancouver. Dziekanski’s mother finally left the airport after being told that her son was not there – this, while he was not far away, trapped in the back of the airport and becoming increasingly frustrated about his circumstances.
“Robert Dziekanski died essentially because he couldn’t speak English and nobody could break through that barrier,” Wainwright says. “It’s quite extraordinary.”
The author and professor emeritus of English at Dalhousie University says he “very purposely” wrote a “song cycle,” crafting the words to the music that he was hearing in his head. He believed that rather than a poem or play, the “classical music form” was the best way to pay tribute to Dziekanski’s life.
After Wainwright wrote the first draft of his opera in a “white heat,” it took months of collaboration with composer John Plant to finish the piece. Along with Plant on piano, a string quartet and a clarinetist play during the performance.
Wainwright, who is an opera fan but had also taught a university course for more than a decade on Bob Dylan and his music, says he has never written anything like this before.
The opera opens in Poland with an excited and nervous Dziekanski preparing to leave, and thinking about his hopes and aspirations for his new life in Canada. Then comes the transatlantic plane ride, followed by the beginning of his end, when he is lost in the airport, unable to leave. Just before he dies, he holds up his hands in surrender to the RCMP, thinking that they are there to help him.
The word “taser” is never uttered aloud in the piece; nor does the audience see Dziekanski die. Any references to the taser are metaphorical; the Dziekanski character sings just before he dies, “I fall into my beating heart.”
At press time, the opera was set to be performed just once, on Thursday at the Scotia Festival of Music in Halifax – where Halifax-based Marcia Swanston and Montreal-based Clayton Kennedy will play mother and son – but Wainwright is hoping that it will be shown in other cities. He believes Dziekanski’s is a national story that could have happened in Toronto or Montreal or Halifax.
Only after Wainwright finished the piece did he call Dziekanski’s mother in Kamloops, inviting her to the performance, which she attended.
“I like to think of it perhaps as part of the healing process not only for Robert Dziekanski’s family, his mother, in particular, but for Canadians, because this happened in their country,” Wainwright concludes.