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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 15, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 37
Seattle Opera presents compelling An American Dream
Arts & Entertainment
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Seattle Opera presents compelling An American Dream

by Sharon Cumberland - SGN A&E Writer

SEATTLE OPERA
COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT PROJECT
AN AMERICAN DREAM
WASHINGTON HALL
September 7, 8, 10, 14, 15 & 17


'An American Dream' by composer Jack Perla received its world premier at Seattle Opera in 2015, and is being re-staged now in the more intimate setting at Washington Hall in the Central District. Not only is this short, intense opera appropriate for a smaller venue, but Washington Hall itself is central to the subject of the opera - the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese families in 1942 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In King County, where the opera is set, 9,600 people of Japanese ancestry - two-thirds American citizens - were taken from their homes on short notice and left with no resources to protect their property or businesses. Washington Hall was where these innocent people were brought to be registered for relocation.

While Perla's music is at once modern and melodic, the real star of this opera is the libretto by Jessica Murphy Moo, who gives us a moving picture of a desperate family sacrificing their history - photos, documents, and letters from family in Japan - in a failed attempt to avoid arrest and removal from their Puget Sound farm. As hard as it is for a white person like me to watch, the story turns on a young white man, Jim Crowley, who pressures the patriarch of the Japanese family, Makoto Kobayashi, to sell his property at a tenth of its value, knowing that there is no time for him to sell it at fair market price. When FBI agents come through the door, Kobayashi accepts the pittance Crowley has offered in order to help the family survive in the camps.

Yet Crowley and his wife Eva, a German Jew who has fled the Nazis, will pay a sad price for their ill-gotten gains. Setsuko, the teen-aged daughter of the Kobayashi family, is so angry that she conceals a letter addressed to Eva that has come to the house and quickly hides her favorite doll under the floorboards as the family leaves their home forever. (How strange if feels that this fictional family had to register in the non-fictional Washington Hall, the very place where we sit to hear their story).

The moral center of the opera is Eva, who doesn't know at first that Jim has cheated the Kobayashis. She feels sympathy for their plight since she herself is suffering as a war-torn civilian, not knowing if any of her family have survived the Nazis' removal of Jews to concentration camps. When Eva finds Setsuko's doll, she determines to return it to the Kobayashi family in defiance of Jim's prejudice and self-justification. Though Setsuko returns after the war to give Eva the purloined letter, there can be no feel-good ending - everyone is a victim of war.

Moo's libretto is masterful in that she manages to show both sides of this unjust equation. She is particularly clever in calling her opera 'An American Dream' since everyone in it shares the same dream. It would have been easy to make the exploitation of the Japanese the sole focus of the story, but Moo shows the complexities of competing motivations - the Kobayashi family forced to give up all they have worked for in the wake of U.S. governmental anxiety over Pearl Harbor, and the Crowley family spending all their savings to buy a farm they can't really afford to make a home for Eva's parents who, they hope, have escaped the Nazis. Jim Cowley's extortion is clearly wrong, but his desperation and prejudice are set beside Eva's simple, powerful view of right and wrong. D'Ana Lombard sang this role with heartfelt assurance, giving Eva the necessary German accent while still enunciating the English text clearly (no libretto or supertitles were provided). At first you're not sure, as she waits outside for Jim to bully Kobayashi into selling the house, that she is not in cahoots with her husband since she is beautifully dressed in a suit with a fur stole while Mama Kobayashi is in a simple house dress. But in the second section, after the Crowleys have moved in, Eva, too, is in a simple house dress, drawing a strong visual parallel between both women who want nothing more than to take care of their families and live in peace.

The singing was universally excellent. Ao Li's round, full baritone expressed Papa Kobayashi's dignified struggle and anguish with tremendous sympathy, while Nina Yoshida Nelson's fabulous mezzo soprano went straight to the heart of a mother's love for her family and indignation at their persecution. Baritone Ryan Bede managed the unsympathetic role of Jim Crowley with a degree of sensitivity that made his character human without obscuring his moral misstep - the prejudice in microcosm that reflects the massive prejudice of the Government's injustice. The star of the show, however, was Yeonji Lee, who had the most dramatic opportunities to show off her character's range - from an angry, naïve young girl to an angry, sorrowful young woman. Lee's beautiful, stentorian soprano went from baby-talking her doll and arguing with her parents, to demanding of Jim Crowley that he remove the blindfold of racism and see Setsuko clearly as a human being.

Set designer Julia Haynes Welch deserves kudos for her stage that runs down the center of the hall in alternating narrow and broad sections, like a key supporting a problem too complex to unlock. The 16-piece orchestra was powerfully conducted by Judith Yan - and I make no apologies for my happiness at seeing a woman on the podium. Maestra Yan conducted with energy and élan that brought out the nuances of Perla's score. (I regret that there is a terrible inequality in the music world when it comes to conducting. How many female conductors can you name? Apart from Jane Glover, Marin Alsop, and Emmanuelle Haim (and I had to go to the Internet to jog my memory) there aren't many.) I applaud Seattle Opera for giving Yan this opportunity and I hope they will bring her and her conducting sisters to the podium in the future.

Seattle Opera's 'An American Dream' is performing at Washington Hall through September 17.

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