Musician and educator Suzanne Windsor-Liscombe (BMus’80, DipEd’91, MEd’92, EdD’14) talks about how she lost her hearing and found her true calling — as a composer of children’s operas
By Tze Liew
Suzanne Windsor-Liscombe is passionate about music and education. She is also deaf. Having suddenly lost her hearing in 2010, she can no longer hear music or sing in tune, or do many of the things she used to enjoy as a skilled pianist and singer. In spite of this life-changing event, she has found her unique calling as an educator-composer and librettist, working around her hearing loss to write children’s operas for elementary students in B.C.’s Lower Mainland.
As Head Teacher at Confederation Park Elementary in the Burnaby School District, she and a few colleagues founded an arts-integrated program which saved the school from being shut down – the student body had dropped to only 90 students when they first took over in 2006. She began to compose children’s operas for the curriculum in 2011.
“We were trying to get students to understand what opera was, and also learn something significant about our history [and] society,” she says.
The challenge of writing operas for children prompted Windsor-Liscombe to create what she calls musical-operas. “While there’s some recitative in my works” — that is, dialogue which is sung to move the story along — “it’s too challenging and unreasonable to expect untrained elementary students to take on recitative fully. So the pieces I compose have considerably more spoken dialogue than an opera.”
Her first project was based on a children’s book: Mean Jean the Recess Queen, about bullying on the playground. Working in close collaboration with Bonnie Ishii, Confederation Park’s music and dance educator, she adapted the story for grade four and five students to perform.
“Writing the music and re-crafting the story into song lyrics was just a lot of fun – and very gratifying,” she says. “It worked really well for the kids, so I wanted to keep writing more.”
In the following years she wrote the operas Sadako and Kinderzug, integrating the grade seven studies on World War II Japan and Germany, respectively. Sadako, adapted from Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, tells the true story of Sadako Sasiki, a young girl who died from leukemia in 1955 due to radiative exposure from the Hiroshima bomb. Kinderzug is Windsor-Liscombe’s original story, about a teacher who is determined to deliver three Jewish children safely out of Nazi Germany.
“The kids loved them,” she says. “It’s better than just reading a book. When the kids can become the characters in a certain point in history, they live the history more.”
Besides helping the students learn through experience, Windsor-Liscombe’s operas give them the opportunity to express their talents, and work together in a community.
“It’s great for encouraging self-esteem. Kids who you thought couldn’t carry a tune came forward wanting to do lead roles, and they were wonderful,” she says. “Then there’s always that one kid who just doesn’t want to be onstage. So they do tech or backstage work instead. Everybody gets involved. It’s really rewarding.”
Bringing community together is important to Windsor-Liscombe. Over the years she has invited parents to volunteer as photographers and technicians, as well as guest artists to help with the productions. “It’s about as professional as you can get in a school gym,” she says, laughing. Recently she had Sadako professionally recorded with UBC Opera students Spencer Britten (BMus’15, MMus’17), Andrea Wyllie (BMus’18, MMus student) and alumna Marie Civaterese (MMus’17). For Kinderzug, she hired Civaterese as an artist-in-residence to help teach the students and sing the lead role.
“Having Marie here took everything up a level, because the kids got to work with a real performer. The kids loved her, and I think she had a good time too,” says Windsor-Liscombe.
“From our first meeting, Suzanne's passion and excitement for her stories was infectious,” Civaterese says. “We discussed the libretto in detail, and once I started learning the music I could immediately feel her connection to the characters. Her operas are a most special educational tool to teach our history to children in a way that helps them connect with the emotional context of the events.”
Since Windsor-Liscombe first helped Confederation Park transition into an arts-integrated school 12 years ago, the school has flourished. It’s filled to capacity today, with students pouring in even from other districts. Her opera productions are an important part of the curriculum.
Windsor-Liscombe says she pieces the music together bit by bit in her head, relying on her knowledge of theory and cadences.
“Even though I can no longer hear music, I can hear it inside my head. It was like my external world became my internal world. Sometimes I think I’m going a little crazy – but now that it’s internalised, I want to get it out.”
It’s a slow and difficult process, but it works. She believes she is lucky to have had good training from teachers such as Stephen Chatman and Cortland Hultberg while studying at UBC in the late 70s and early 80s. But it wasn't until she lost her hearing that composing became profoundly important to her.
“I used to play for ballets, musicals, sing in choir, direct things, teach, go to concerts. All of that was just completely washed out when I couldn’t hear anymore,” she says. “I think composition saved me. It made me feel like I still had some ability after all those years. More than anything else I’ve done in music, this makes me the proudest.”
Windsor-Liscombe continues to teach and to write about issues that matter to her. Currently she is working on another opera: A Letter to Wanda, which focuses on bullying in its many subtle forms, based on the story The One Hundred Dresses by Estelle Estes. It will be performed next spring at Confederation Park Elementary.
Banner image: Takumi Hayashi/UBC School of Music