Arts & Culture

“An American Dream” premieres at Seattle Opera

Hae Ji Chang (Setsuko Kobayashi) at a staging rehearsal for Seattle Opera’s world premiere of “An American Dream,” which  opens Friday at McCaw Hall.
Hae Ji Chang (Setsuko Kobayashi) at a staging rehearsal for Seattle Opera’s world premiere of “An American Dream,” which opens Friday at McCaw Hall. Courtesy

Americans don’t usually go to the opera to watch a story from their own neighborhood. According to Opera America, of the 10 most frequently performed operas in the United States, four are from Italy, three are German, one is set in Japan by an Italian, one in France by an Italian, and the last is set in Spain by a Frenchman. (Curious? Answers at the bottom.) None were written after 1904.

But walk into Seattle’s Marion Oliver McCaw Hall this weekend, and you’ll see and hear an opera based on World War II Puget Sound events that still have repercussions today.

And it’s highly democratic. “An American Dream” is a world premiere by composer Jack Perla that got its inspiration from true stories told to Seattle Opera by local folks.

It began with the “Belongings” project, launched by Seattle Opera in 2011, which asked community members to tell stories answering the question “If you had to leave your home today and couldn’t return, what would you want to take with you?” The interviews were recorded on video, and Seattle Opera communications editor and librettist Jessica Murphy Moo sat down with composer Jack Perla to watch all of them, seeking stories that might become the kernel of a contemporary, Seattle-based opera.

“There were dozens,” says Moo. “One was a man with a toy airplane, one was a little girl talking about how much she loved her plush penguin. The challenge was how to make them into a single work of art. … We looked for stories that had a strong emotional core.”

Two such stories stood out, both from World War II. One was by a Jewish woman whose family had fled Nazi-dominated Germany when she was 6 — she still had a precious book of photos from her hometown. The second was from a Japanese-American woman who had been taken with her family from Bainbridge Island to an internment camp, part of a federal order which locked up 120,000 Japanese-Americans because of their perceived threat to national security. The woman still had a jar of shells she’d collected.

“So we came up with a fictional story to connect them,” explains Moo, who went back to both women and did longer interviews. “It was a very humbling experience.”

It was also a learning experience for Moo, who has worked with the opera for a long time but had never written a libretto before.

Moo’s story finally became “An American Dream,” which will be performed Friday (Aug. 21) and Sunday in Seattle. It tells of two families unusually connected. Eva, a German Jew (D’Ana Lombard) married to American veteran Jim (Morgan Smith) move into a new home on a Puget Sound island, only to discover that the house belonged to a Japanese-American family (Nina Yoshida Nelsen, Adam Lau and Hae Ji Chang) who had been forced to leave it.

Together with a score by Jack Perla that merges contemporary tonality and Asian melodic motifs, and innovative staging and seating from director Peter Kazaras, the opera promises to be intimate with much more personal connection than your typical 19th-century Italian extravaganza.

Prior to each show, documentaries and exhibits in the lobby will tell the experiences of local people during WWII and the Japanese-American incarceration. Afterwards there will be an audience talkback with artists, members of the creative team and former incarcerees.

The opera was produced in collaboration with many community organizations including the Holocaust Center for Humanity, Bainbridge Island Historical Museum, Densho (the Japanese American Legacy Project), Japanese American Citizens League, Museum of History and Industry, Wing Luke Museum and Los Angeles-based Japanese American National Museum, to provide cultural and historical expertise.

“Any art form must add new works to the established classics of the core repertoire,” says Seattle Opera general director Aidan Lang in a press release. “(This opera’s) storyline was sourced locally and belongs right here in the Pacific Northwest; but its scope and themes are far wider than that. They have a resonance, an appeal and an emotional punch that transforms an important but little-told aspect of our history into something truly universal.”

“Although the Japanese American incarceration during World War II is long past, it is important, now more than ever, to continue telling these stories,” said Beth Takekawa, executive director of Wing Luke Museum. “Each day people come to our museum … eager to learn about these events … and explore what they mean for us today.”

IF YOU GO

What: “An American Dream.”

Who: Seattle Opera, music by Jack Perla, libretto by Jessica Murphy Moo.

When: 7 p.m. Friday (Aug. 21), 2 p.m. Sunday (pre-show screenings one hour prior, post-show talkback afterwards).

Where: McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle.

Tickets: From $50.

Information: 800-426-1619, seattleopera.org.

TOP 10 MOST PERFORMED OPERAS IN AMERICA

“The Barber of Seville” (Rossini, 1816)

“Cinderella” (Rossini, 1817)

“La Traviata” (Verdi, 1853)

“Aida” (Verdi, 1871)

“The Marriage of Figaro” (Mozart, 1786)

“The Magic Flute” (Mozart, 1791)

“Hansel and Gretel” (Humperdinck, 1893)

“Madame Butterfly” (Puccini, 1904)

“La Bohème” (Puccini, 1896)

“Carmen” (Bizet, 1875)

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