‘Dream’ Revisits Nightmare Of Japanese in U.S.

Hae Ji Chang (Setsuko Kobayashi) in Seattle Opera's world premiere of 'An American Dream.' (Production photos by Elise Bakketun)
Hae Ji Chang (Setsuko Kobayashi) in Jack Perla and Jessica Murphy Moo’s ‘An American Dream’ at Seattle Opera.
(Production photos by Elise Bakketun)
By Jason Victor Serinus

SEATTLE – In preparation for the world premiere of its latest commission, Jack Perla and Jessica Murphy Moo’s under-90-minute, one-act chamber opera An American Dream, Seattle Opera did all it could to ensure that the opera’s local connections would go straight to the heart. Thus, the company transformed its lobbies and hallways into an all-immersive environment. That the pre-musical experience proved more engrossing than the opera itself did not in any way diminish the commission’s impact.

D'Ana Lombard as Eva Crowley the Seattle world premiere.
D’Ana Lombard as Eva Crowley in the Seattle Opera world premiere.

Many who attended the opera’s second and final performance, on Aug. 23, already knew what to expect. Not only were the pre-performance displays visible at the company’s production of Verdi’s Nabucco, which ended on Aug. 22, but there was also a huge amount of pre-premiere publicity that focused on the crowd-sourced genesis of An American Dream.

In 2011, Seattle Opera’s former director of education, Sue Elliot, began a community engagement project that asked the public to respond to two questions: “If you had to leave your home today and couldn’t return, what would you want to take with you? Why is that object, that memory, or that connection to your past so important?” Dozens of people were videotaped telling stories and sharing objects and memories.

Next, Perla, a San Francisco-based composer who has written music for several other socially themed operas, and Moo, Seattle Opera’s current communications editor, began to weave selected elements of the stories together. They settled on the World War II experiences of two Seattle women: Mary Matsuda Guenewald, a Japanese-American author who grew up on Vashon Island across from Seattle, and Marianne Weltmann, a German Jewish opera singer whose family escaped Nazi Europe when she was a child.

The American Dream experience began within moments of entering McCaw Hall’s large lobby. First encountered was a short documentary exploring the enforced incarceration of Japanese-Americans in prison camps, euphemistically termed “internment camps,” from 1942 to beyond the formal end of World War II. In addition there were historic photos and documents, including a multi-page display entitled “Questions and Answers for Evacuees: Information Regarding the Relocation Program.” Containing the exact text of documents issued to Japanese prisoners by the War Relocation Authority, the display was complemented by others that provided background on the lives of Japanese and Jewish immigrants to the Pacific Northwest.

Adam Lau plays father to Hae Ji Chang's daughter in the new work.
Adam Lau plays father to Hae Ji Chang’s daughter in the new work.

Things got more intense from there. First, every ticket-holder underwent a stern orientation by two uniformed guards, who issued an instruction document and distributed “mandatory” identification tags.

Once processed, patrons arrived at a long corridor that detailed the history of American discrimination against its Asian and Filipino immigrants. It wasn’t just “Negroes” (as people of African descent were then called) whom white Americans were forbidden to marry.

A short display at the turn of the hallway, preceded by an alert about potentially offensive material, displayed some virulent anti-Japanese propaganda. Even the beloved Dr. Seuss was not above indulging in racist slander. The campaign was so intense that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had received an official study that concluding that Japanese-Americans were not a threat to the U.S., signed Executive Order 9066, which in 1942 “evacuated” America’s Japanese residents, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens, from their homes and incarcerated them in prison camps for the duration of the war.

Upstairs, more video plus a series of beautifully executed personal history exhibits seized visitors’ attention. As a descendant of Russian-Polish Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe to New York City at the end of 19th century in order to escape persecution, I teared up as I read multiple tales of survivors of concentration camps and the Jewish underground resistance.

Morgan Smith (Jim Crowley), Hae Hi Chang (Setsuko Kobayashi) and D'Ana Lombard (Eva Crowely) in 'An American Dream.'
Morgan Smith, Hae Hi Chang and D’Ana Lombard in ‘An American Dream.’

Inside the theater, even before the music began, three survivors of the period told their stories. The first, 96-year-old Kay Sakai Nakao, spoke with great dignity. Then came younger Filipino-American Felix Narte, Jr., whose father cared for the farm of an imprisoned Japanese-American family on Bainbridge Island during the war. Narte broke down as he explained that his family raised him on the acre of land they were given by that Japanese-American family in thanks for their loving service. Finally came that family’s 81-year old daughter, Lilly Kitamoto Kodama.

With the circle thus complete and the audience primed, the first notes of music began. Vivid video animation by Robert Bonniol and Travis Mouffe of Mode Studios accompanied a notably liquid and lyrical, somewhat depressing orchestral introduction. Judith Yan, in her Seattle Opera debut, conducted the orchestra of 15 players with vigor and deep sympathy for the score.

The Opera

Once singing got underway, video projection devolved into a few simple, unchanging backdrops. Given that Seattle Opera’s projectors make a loud racket that raises the ambient noise level far above that usually encountered in air-conditioned halls, it would have made more musical and artistic sense to turn the things off and let a painted backdrop suffice. After all, the location did not change throughout the story.

As for the plot, too often opera companies forget that opera attendees want to be consumed by drama and to be surprised. (Hence the true lament from a distraught first-timer to Puccini’s Tosca, who approached a member of San Francisco Opera’s artistic staff and complained, “Why did you have to spoil it by telling us that she jumps in the end?”) Ignoring this, Seattle Opera distributed programs that spelled out every single twist and turn of the tale. Much better was the official blog’s succinct summation: “A Japanese American family [in a farmhouse in Puget Sound] burns precious belongings from Japan in an attempt to avoid arrest during World War II. Young Setsuko manages to hide her beloved doll before her family is forced out of their home. A new couple moves in: Jim, a U.S. veteran, and Eva, a Jewish immigrant preoccupied by her family’s situation in Germany. When Eva finds the doll, she discovers the truth – about Setsuko’s family and her own.”

Nina Yoshida Nelsen (Hiroko Kobayashi) and Hae Ji Chang (Setsuko Kobayashi).
Mother and daughter: Nina Yoshida Nelsen (Hiroko) and Hae Ji Chang.

This being opera, matters were a bit more complicated. The story, strong on victim-persecutor dynamics, includes multiple heart-tugging encounters. To these ends, Perla sets Murphy Moo’s libretto in a lyrical, vaguely modern manner that melds more than a few Philip Glass-like minimalistic repetitions with slow-moving, invariably gloomy undercurrents whose emotional tenor remains surprisingly calm and even through most of the opera.

Seattle Opera terms Perla’s idiom “post-Britten, post-Bernstein,” which could mean almost anything. (You can sample two arias on the blog.) Suffice it to say that Peter Grimes meets the Jets it is not. Save for one climactic passage that lasts all of a few minutes, everything about this story proceeds so slowly that grade school children will have no trouble following along.

The singing was uniformly excellent. In her Seattle Opera debut, South Korean soprano Hae Ji Chang (as young daughter Setsuko Kobayashi) produced her soaring sweet tones with fetching innocence. I left hungry to hear her Pamina. As her parents, debut American bass Adam Lau and debut mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen were quite touching. As the American husband, baritone Morgan Smith, a former Seattle Opera Young Artist, produced especially handsome volumes of tone that grew convincingly darker and more emphatic. Debut soprano D’Ana Lombard, who played the American’s new German Jewish wife, sang with a certain Old World stolidity and poor enunciation that, thanks to supertitles, served her role well enough.

Given its potent subject matter and edifying elements, it is quite likely that, within a decade, An American Dream will secure far more performances than either John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer or Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. That most people will likely see it in educational settings or community centers is not to denigrate the opera’s achievement as a cumulative experience in which music plays but one part. An American Dream may not be a great work of art, but it is a prime example of “people’s music” that tackles a formerly uncomfortable subject with honesty and whose ultimate impact relies, in large part, on  non-musical components that are anything but ancillary.

Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, CVNA, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera Now, Listen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications. He whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. He resides in Port Townsend, Wash.