A new opera for children contains a special anti-bullying message

Elijah’s Kite, a new opera for children which premiered before Governor General Michaëlle Jean at Rideau Hall yesterday, carries a special anti-bullying message due to the efforts of York University professor Debra Pepler. A professor of psychology in the Faculty of Health and a psychologist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Pepler is also the leader of the Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network (PREVNet) which works to promote safe and healthy relationships for Canadian children and youth.

The opera is set in a playground full of kids, where nine-year old Elijah feels all alone. He’s had a lot of trouble from Big Billy Brett, the school bully. Elijah brings his favourite kite to school and dreams of flying away. Elijah meets the new girl – Miriam – who’s not afraid of Billy. But her fierceness soon turns to meanness, and she becomes a bully too. By the end of the opera, the kids all learn how to turn something negative into something good, and discover that co-operation can make Elijah’s kite fly.

Right: A scene from the new children’s opera Elijah’s Kite

Pepler worked closely with the opera’s developer, Tapestry New Opera Works, to help produce Elijah’s Kite. The opera, by composer James Rolfe and librettist Camyar Chai, had its Canadian premiere yesterday in two special performances at Rideau Hall in Ottawa for the governor-general and audiences of school students.

“This is an opera for children on bullying, which will be performed throughout Ontario,” said Pepler. “PREVNet, our Networks of Centres of Excellence – New Initiative, has been collaborating with Tapestry New Opera Works in this production and in an innovative form of knowledge mobilization. Members of York University  – myself and doctoral student Katherine McKenney – have been involved over the past year in consultations on the libretto, workshopping with the cast, and preparing the teacher’s guide for the opera.”

Pepler is an expert on the antisocial behaviour of children and adolescents, particularly in the school and peer contexts. Her research examines aggression and victimization among adolescents with a concern to the processes related to these problems over the lifespan. She is leading a major collaborative project to develop a National Bullying Strategy for the Government of Canada.

Debra Pepler

PREVNet is a collaborative and interdisciplinary initiative, bringing together 23 university researchers from 17 Canadian universities and 34 national non-governmental organizations. The partners will share up-to-date scientific knowledge and research expertise, build awareness of bullying and aggression problems, plot strategies, inform public policy making, and shift attitudes on an issue that matters to Canadians.( For more on Pepler’s research, see the Nov. 5, 2004 issue of YFile.)


PREVNet is headed by Pepler, who is a member of York University’s LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence and Conflict Resolution, and Professor Wendy Craig of Queen’s University; both are renowned international experts on bullying. The network’s goal is to change society by working with governments and NGOs to reduce the use of power and aggression in relationships. (For more information on PREVNet, see the March 29, 2006 issue of YFile.)

Elijah’s Kite was commissioned with the assistance of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council and the generosity of private donors Peter and Hélène Hunt. The opera was developed in partnership with the Manhattan School of Music (MSM) Opera Studies Division with a partnership grant from the Canadian Opera Creation Program, administered by Opera.ca. The world premiere of Elijah’s Kite took place at the MSM in New York on April 9, 2006. 

The opera had its genesis when MSM’s director of opera studies, Gordon Ostrowski, visited Toronto in 2004 and felt that the team of Rolfe and Chai would be a good fit to write a children’s opera for presentation at the New York City school. Rolfe is located in Toronto and Chai in Vancouver, but the creators developed the project in close collaboration. They brought selected teachers and their classes into the process to discuss bullying.

Along with the consultations by Pepler and McKenney, PREVnet’s support includes a comprehensive study guide that accompanies the production, written by McKenney and arts education specialist Pat McCarthy.

Elijah’s Kite is currently touring Ontario schools and community centres until Nov. 17, through the aegis of Prologue to the Performing Arts.

For more information on Tapestry and the downloadable Elijah’s Kite Study Guide, visit the Tapestry New Opera Web site.