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Opera takes on bullies
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Teenage girls understand the power of a look. Composer Susan Kander hopes her opera will spark conversations about bullying among adolescent girls. (MPR photo/Dan Gunderson)
You might think melodrama, angst and tragedy of operatic proportions are part of being a teenage girl. An opera opening Thursday in Fargo focuses on the emotional pain of girls who are ostracized and bullied. The opera's composer says it's a serious subject -- too long ignored.

Moorhead, Minn. — This is an opera created for teenage girls, about teenage girls.

It's a story about the desperate battle for popularity. Anyone who gets attention becomes a target, and all it takes is one false move. "One False Move" is the title of this opera, which was inspired by the best-selling book, "Odd Girl Out: The Culture of Hidden Agression in Girls," by Rachel Simmons.

Moorhead high school senior Alexandra Thrasher sings one of the lead roles.

"We've all been excluded and bullied every once in a while in our lives," says Thrasher. "We've also been the one to push other people around. I wouldn't like to think of myself as doing that, but it happens, I think, whether you're conscious of it or not."

"I've been more on the receiving end of it," says Caitlan O'Connell, a sophomore at Oak Grove High School in Fargo.

"But I've done it, I know, because that's just what seems to happen sometimes. Someone irritates you and you just don't like them anymore and you just don't hang out ever again," says O'Connell. "I've seen it happen before where girls totally exclude each other and hate each other in a day -- and it's amazing to see it put to music."

"One False Move" tells the story of a teenage girl who is shattered when her friends turn on her and she can't understand why. It's a lot like real life, says Fargo North High School senior Samantha Brewer.

"Everyone pretty much goes through it. It's a nice way for us to do this show, so we can teach younger generations to be kinder so when they're in high school it won't be as conflicting," says Brewer.

New York City composer Susan Kander wrote the music and lyrics for "One False Move."

"I cry every time I see it," Kander says. "I find all of that pain to be immediate and awful, and I never get through it."

Don't be caught stealing the limelight
If the limelight isn't yours, beware.
Don't admit you have a social conscience
If the others think it's cooler not to care.
Never state opinions of your own
Never let on who you really are.
Never doubt that you could be alone
For the rest of your life
With an invisible scar
From that unplanned, unconscious false move.

Kander was asked to write the opera by Kansas City Lyric Opera Director Paula Winans. It was a difficult project, because it brought back the memory of being ostracized in junior high, says Kander. She thinks that's a common experience for women.

Many women are in tears by the end of the opera, when a lone girl stands on stage and tries to understand what she did wrong, says Kander.

Many women are in tears by the end of the opera, when a lone girl stands on stage and tries to understand what she did wrong.
- Susan Kander

Too often, she says, parents and teachers tend to overlook bullying by girls.

"'Girls will be girls. This is how they are. They'll forget about what happened, you'll be back to being best friends by the end of the week, don't worry about it.' When in fact the event is huge and something the victim will never forget the rest of her life, says Kander. "A girl can go to school and spend a whole day and not hear a single word a teacher said. Learning stops when this (bullying) goes on."

"One False Move" is a message targeted at adolescent girls, but Susan Kander believes bullying doesn't necessarily end when girls grow up.

"I think it is not at all uncommon to find versions of this in the workplace, especially where there are lots of women and a ladder to climb," she says. "This is very hard for women to stop doing once they have learned to do it."

Kander thinks junior high is the time teach girls about bullying, and what it feels like to be the odd girl out.

She hopes "One False Move" will be a catalyst for converations in classrooms and homes.