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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 28, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 35
An American Dream - Opera based on community outreach
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An American Dream - Opera based on community outreach

by Alice Bloch - SGN Contributing Writer

AN AMERICAN DREAM
SEATTLE OPERA
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
August 23


In 2011 Sue Elliott, then Seattle Opera's Director of Education, had a great idea: to develop a new opera based on the experiences of the local community. Her brainchild, the Belonging(s) Project, asked community members to answer 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?'

Librettist Jessica Murphy Moo and composer Jack Perla were then commissioned to create the opera, An American Dream, from the responses to those questions. They focused on the experiences of two Seattle-area women during World War II: Mary Matsuda Grunewald, who was incarcerated with her family and other Japanese-Americans at the Tule Lake War Relocation Center, and Marianne Weltmann, a German Jew who emigrated to the United States just in time but whose parents stayed behind and did not survive.

Extensive pre-performance exhibits (curated by Kelly Kitchens) immersed audience members in the xenophobic atmosphere of wartime, and videotaped interviews with elderly Japanese-Americans reminiscing about their lives before World War II gave a sense of what was lost when they were rounded up for incarceration. On the stage, pre-performance testimonials by Kay Sakai Nakao, Felix Narte, Jr., and Lilly Kitamoto Kodama primed the audience to understand the trauma of unjust exile and imprisonment.

The one-act opera itself contained some beautiful, touching moments, but overall it conveyed less emotion than did the pre-performance activities. Moo's libretto was a miracle of pared-down, poetic language and skillful plotting; the staging by director Peter Kazaras on a just-right set designed by Robert Schaub was unfussy and effective; conductor Judith Yan ably led an excellent chamber ensemble composed of members of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra; the singers were all first-rate - but alas, to this listener, Perla's score fell flat.

In all fairness, I'd never heard any of Perla's music before, and perhaps I needed to learn how to listen to it; but my first impression was that the music was uninspired and unoriginal. I heard some influence of Philip Glass, some of Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and Richard Rogers, but nothing thrilling or memorable.

But even if the music isn't compelling, the storyline is.

In a farmhouse on a Puget Sound island in 1942, a young girl named Setsuko Kobayashi hides her precious Japanese doll, while her parents hastily burn all papers and photographs that might tie them to Japan. Outside, an American veteran, Jim, and his German Jewish bride, Eva, walk around the property he intends to buy. Eva is terribly worried about her parents, who are still in Germany, and Jim reassures her that there will be room in this house for all of them.

Unbeknownst to Eva, Jim uses the Kobayashis' desperate situation to get them to sell him the farm for a small fraction of its real value. Setsuko intercepts a letter that arrives from Germany for Eva, and in her anger about being forced to leave her home, Setsuko steals the letter. After Eva and Jim move in, Eva finds Setsuko's doll and vows to return it to its owner.

In 1945, while still incarcerated, Setsuko hears from Eva. After she is freed, Setsuko returns to the farm. Braving Jim's hostility, she retrieves her doll and gives Eva the letter she stole three years earlier. The letter tells Eva that her parents were shot and killed outside their home. The opera ends with Eva collapsing and Setsuko's father arriving at the door.

In a cast of strong singers, Hae Ji Chang as Setsuko stood out for the beauty of her lyric soprano voice and the intensity of her performance. Bass Adam Lau and mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen did a fine job portraying Setsuko's parents. As Jim and Eva, baritone Morgan Smith and soprano D'Ana Lombard rounded out the cast in style.

A bad conductor or bad singers can ruin a good opera, but even the best conductor and singers can't save an opera with a mediocre score. In the post-performance discussion, Perla said he'd made Moo revise the libretto at least a dozen times. Perhaps the opera would have been better served if Moo had persuaded Perla to revise his score a dozen times, too.

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