Which song could be the soundtrack of your life today? This question is posed to the 8th grade characters in Operatic (2019), a wonderful new graphic novel combining music history and biography with smart insights into the complex tween and teenage years. Author Kyo Maclear and illustrator Byron Eggenschwiler do a pitch-perfect job showing us how the students in “Mr. K’s” music class respond to this assigned question, based on their evolving self-awareness, middle school dynamics, and new as well as long-standing friendships. This Canadian duo seamlessly blends their considerable talents in this richly satisfying work, which will move readers young and old with its poignancy as well as humor.
As Maclear has said, this is a novel about friendship, with the crush that develops between two of the four central characters a secondary element. Charlotte Noguchi (aka Charlie), a hapa (part Asian) teen, is the narrator, with shy, bookish Emile and a new student, un-selfconsciously genderfluid Luka, the other fictional characters. The final central character is real-life opera star Maria Callas, who voices the song Charlie is amazed to discover is the soundtrack—the personally resonant and meaningful tune—to her current life. What Charlie finds out—and then imagines—about the difficult younger years and complicated life of this sometimes controversial diva is non-fiction intertwined smoothly with the fictional framework here. Mr. K’s ongoing overview of music history—with different musical styles, such as emo and hip-hop–is a similarly smooth part of the narrative. (In her blog, author Maclear reveals that her sons’ middle school music teacher was the inspiration for Mr. K. She recently interviewed this gifted teacher.)
Maclear uses precise, apt words and verbal images to convey Charlie and Emile’s slow-growing affection for each other, along with the concern they share for Luka, absent now from school after homophobic bullying by some schoolmates. For instance, Charlie notes that Emile’s “voice lights up my belly like sparklers/ little pops of brightness in my gut.” When she thinks about Luka’s initial self-assurance, Charlie realizes that Luka “was kind of stubborn. Like the oak tree by the old tennis courts. That just keeps growing and doesn’t care that it’s not meant to be there. Like that.” Such word craft, including natural speech rhythms for all the book’s characters, has won MacClear awards for works written for adults as well as story books for kids. (I reviewed one of those story books, The Fog, here.) It is remarkable, though, that Operatic is Maclear’s first graphic novel, as she is stunningly good at deliberately leaving narrative space for illustrator Eggenschwiler to develop the story visually.
Eggenschwiler effectively uses color to code each character’s strand within the novel’s limited, muted palette: Charlie’s sections are golden yellow; Emile’s are dark grey; Luka’s parts are sky blue; and Maria Callas’ arc is rose red. When their stories overlap, either within the book’s main narrative or within a character’s imagination, so do the colors. For instance, the mystery behind Luka’s prolonged school absence, ultimately resolved well, is signaled by a jarringly blue desk. And when Charlie daydreams about Emile, who studies insects, she mentally pictures him reclining in a lush grotto composed of outsized, yellow and dark grey butterflies. This two page spread is just one instance of full or double page images where size conveys dramatic emphasis. The transporting impact of Maria Callas’ rich voice is seen in several red-hued full or double page images.
Eggenschwiler also takes full advantage of narrative space to both advance and enhance Operatic’s story. Often, he deploys wordless panels or pages for this purpose. For instance, after Charlie’s mentally musing at the bottom of one page that Emile “has a way of looking sideways into my eyes that makes me feel kind of. . . ,“ we turn the page to see Charlie wordlessly melting into a puddle next to her classroom desk! This gently humorous image is a wonderful conclusion to that half-finished verbal thought. Similarly, when the young, unhappy Maria Callas borrows phonograph music records from her public library, we turn the page to see her eagerly, wordlessly examining her newest treasure even as she descends the library portico’s steps.
Montage images, often employing hand-lettered words whose size and style—jittery and jagged to round and smooth—reflect different musical styles and volume, are other elements in Eggenschwiler’s visual repertoire here. In an interview, he explains that he first hand-draws these cross-hatched images in pencil, later coloring them further on a computer. Sometimes, montage images surreally juxtapose other school figures or family members of the main characters. At other points, Eggenschwiler shifts perspective so that at apt moments in the story we see events or objects through Mr. K’s or young Maria Callas’ eyes. Again, I note with amazement that Operatic is also this artist’s first graphic novel. Typically, he works full-time as an editorial illustrator, with other more limited experience as a story book illustrator.
I believe readers of Operatic will come away—as I have—eager to read and see more work by its gifted creators. Possibly you or they may want to listen to recordings by Maria Callas, see a recent documentary film about her, or watch a recorded bit of Master Class, a play written about this demanding diva when she taught. I know I also will be thinking about which song is my own life’s soundtrack today and pondering what would have been the soundtrack during my middle school years. Happily, as noted in Operatic, these tunes have the potential for change and growth that we ourselves do! That reassuring, joyful lesson is one of the upbeat melodies emerging from this graphic work and its positive, life-affirming conclusion.
Meanwhile, later this month I look forward to some serendipitously related movie-going. In just two weeks, a film in part about discovering one’s personal soundtrack debuts nationwide. The entertaining trailer for Blinded by the Light—depicting how the rock music of U. S. singer/composer Bruce Springsteen inspired a Pakistani-British teen—has captured my interest. Learning that this movie is based on the real-life experiences of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, as described in his published memoir Greetings from Bury Park (2008; 2019), adds to my anticipation here. It also reminds me to look far and wide for my life’s soundtrack . . . now and in the future. Music can transcend geographical distance and cultural differences, as Kyo Maclear, Bryan Eggenschwiler, and the characters they create in Operatic would agree.