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“Haunting…Profoundly Symbolic”


‘Shalimar the Clown,’ ‘Ariadne on Naxos’ and ‘Macbeth’ at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

The world premiere of an opera based on a Salman Rushdie novel is topical, literary and theatrical.
Andriana Chuchman as Boonyi and Sean Panikkar as Shalimar. PHOTO: KEN HOWARD

Shalimar, a Muslim tightrope walker and clown, and Boonyi, a Hindu dancer, are teenage performers in a Kashmiri folk theater troupe; their home village of Pachigam is a paradise where Muslims and Hindus coexist peacefully. Caught in a sexual indiscretion, they are rushed into marriage rather than punished. Intended as a celebration of religious tolerance, the union is also a trap for Boonyi, who wants more out of life. She is easily seduced by the predatory U.S. ambassador, Max Ophuls, who promises her everything, but abandons her when she becomes pregnant. Shalimar, enraged at Boonyi’s betrayal, joins the Muslim jihadists fighting against the Indian army. His work as an assassin is just practice for his twin goals in life: to kill Max and Boonyi.

Mr. Joseph’s eloquently spare text leaves plenty of space for Mr. Perla’s music to tell the story. The jangly, icy opening scene in 1989 Los Angeles, where Shalimar accomplishes one of his goals, dissolves into a luxuriantly tonal language for Kashmir in 1964. The aria in which Shalimar falls for Boonyi channels 1950s musicals; so does the choral affirmation of community unity, or “Kashmiriyat.” Even the negative forces—the teacher who tries to blackmail Boonyi, the Iron Mullah who interrupts the wedding—don’t sound discordant. They probably should have.

 But as matters get worse, the music grows darker, and less tonally centered. Act II turns from Boonyi’s “wanting” to Shalimar’s revenge, and the political overtakes the personal. “Winter Has Frozen Us Over Again,” a heartbreaking, mournful duet for Shalimar and Boonyi, carries with it the death of idealism, and the last chorus of “Kashmiriyat” is a dirge, as Pachigam is wiped out. Mr. Perla’s subtle use of tabla and sitar grounds the characters in their South Asian heritage; so does his occasional melismatic vocal writing.

Andriana Chuchman was a poignant Boonyi, capturing her strength and complexity (she also held her own as a dancer); Sean Panikkar made a vivid Shalimar, hardening from a sweet, love-struck clown into a bitter, knife-wielding fanatic. Gregory Dahl brought a thoughtless sense of entitlement to Max; Katharine Goeldner was tough and determined as his endlessly betrayed wife, who callously takes Boonyi’s child. Supporting standouts were Aubrey Allicock as the Iron Mullah and Elliott Paige as the leader of Pachigam. Jayce Ogren was the sensitive conductor.

Allen Moyer’s spare set artfully used a catwalk and a turntable for the cinematic scene transitions; Greg Emetaz’s projections suggested the luxuriant greenery of Kashmir and the chaos of Los Angeles; James Schuette’s costumes deliberately made it difficult to tell the difference between Muslims and Hindus; and Christopher Akerlind’s sunny lighting of paradise darkened as the show went on. James Robinson’s clear direction and Seán Curran’s terrific choreography (including a sextet depicting the rape of Pachigam by the Indian Army) seamlessly connected the big chorus scenes and the intimate moments, drawing the parallels between personal and community tragedy.


Opera Theatre’s season also included Strauss’s “Ariadne on Naxos,” sung in an effective English translation by Tom Hammond, directed by Mr. Curran on a simple, traditional set by Mr. Schuette. The four capable principals were tenor AJ Glueckert, impressive in the punishing role of Bacchus; So Young Park as a pert Zerbinetta; Marjorie Owens as an opulent Ariadne; and Cecelia Hall as a youthful Composer. Rory Macdonald was the restrained conductor. However, the high points of the evening were the moments when Harlequin (John Brancy) and the other three men of Zerbinetta’s troupe (Erik Van Heyningen, Benjamin Lee and Miles Mykkanen), attempting to cheer up the deserted Ariadne, not only sang, but danced Mr. Curran’s ambitious choreography. They didn’t persuade her, but the audience had fun.


The company’s first production of Verdi’s “Macbeth” benefited from the idiomatic conducting of Stephen Lord, but its leads fell short of the necessary dynamism. Roland Wood worked too hard as Macbeth; Julie Makerov sounded more petulant than demonic as his bloodthirsty spouse. Both singers relaxed and did their best work in their final arias. Robert Pomakov was a growly Banquo. The production, directed by Lee Blakeley, was hit-and-miss. Alex Eales created a properly gloomy, bare-bones set, with sliding panels and a stormy backdrop; Mark Bouman’s fur-trimmed costumes for the Scottish thanes gave them a nicely savage vibe. There was lots of blood. The cloaked witches sang well, but their spells were all constructed with sticks. And the final apparition that terrifies Macbeth—Banquo’s kingly descendants—was a group of barely visible infants. The English translation by Jeremy Sams sounded clunky and called attention to itself, rather than letting the propulsive musical rhythms do their job.

“A Powerful World Premiere”

Shalimar the Clown at the Opera Theatre, through June 25

Written by Steve Callahan  |  Category: Classical  |  

A very major event occurred last night at Opera Theatre of St. Louis–the world premiere of Shalimar the Clown, an opera based on the novel by Salman Rushdie. This is a commissioned work, with music by Jack Perla andkdhx-logo libretto by Rajiv Joseph.

The setting is primarily in Pachigam, a small village in the Vale of Kashmir (with a prologue and epilogue in California). The Vale of Kashmir is a place of legendary beauty–a lush valley replete with gardens, orchards, lakes and saffron fields, surrounded by the grandest, most beautiful mountains in the world. It nestles between India, Pakistan and China. Your grandparents would recall the sweet old parlor ballad penned in 1902, “Pale Hands I Loved Beside the Shalimar,” a song that conveyed the idyllic romance with which the world regarded Kashmir. (“Shalimar” is the name of a famed Mughal garden in Srinigar.) For centuries Kashmir was a peaceful land, where Hindus, Muslims and others lived in harmony–or what the natives call kashmiriyat. But since the partition of India in 1947 Kashmir has become a war-torn province filled with religious strife.

Our story deals with Shalimar, a young tight-rope walker in a folk theater troupe. He falls in love with Boonyi, a beautiful dancer. After they are discovered making love their fathers command that they be married to restore their honor. Others protest, because Shalimar is a Muslim and Boonyi a Hindu, but Shalimar’s father, a respected elder, says that such a wedding is acceptable in the spirit of kashmiriyat.

After the wedding, the American ambassador, Max Ophuls, visits and sees the troupe perform. He’s enchanted by Boonyi and invites her to dance in New Delhi. She is eager to escape her backward village. An affair blossoms between Ophuls and Boonyi; a baby is born. The rest of the story follows Shalimar and his thirst for vengeance against Boonyi, against Ophuls, and even against the daughter born of that illicit liaison. Shalimar is drawn into a radical Islamist band of rebels, where he becomes a skilled assassin. This man, who’s name means, in Sanskrit, “abode of love,” has become the abode of bitter, bloody vengeance. He pursues it for twenty-five years.

Composer Jack Perla is a jazz musician as well as a composer of opera, chamber and symphonic music. His beautifully orchestrated score for Shalimar reflects all of these genres as well, of course, as a strong thread of northern Indian music. The raga, that complex, cyclic idiom, is present throughout Shalimar. The orchestra is augmented by Arjun Verma on sitar and Javad Butah on tabla; they do beautiful work. A synthesizer adds to the Indian flavor with electronic versions of the santoor (a kind of hammer dulcimer), the tanpura (a larger drone cousin of the sitar), and the harmonium. All of this adds lovely flavor and richness to the score. In the final moment as Shalimar and the illegitimate daughter, India, stand armed and poised to kill each other these instruments engage in a supremely intense raga that supports the conflict beautifully.

There is great variety in the score. There is pastoral music in the village, reflecting the interplay of different rhythms of nature; there is frenzied traffic music in L.A; there is a waltz, the leitmotif of Ophuls, hinting of his origins. (He sings–perhaps six times–that he was born in Strasbourg.) There is lovely, sensual music for Boonyi’s dances. There is much that is lyrical. At times there is a busy, troubled undercurrent. There are fine arias and duets and there are gorgeous numbers for the chorus. So it’s an excellent score. My one quibble is that, overall, I would have liked an even greater presence of an Indian musical sensibility. The libretto is generally good, though some of the exposition (as when Ophuls introduces himself) is quite blunt and heavy-handed.

All of the singers master this unusual and surely difficult score, but tenor Sean Panikkar stands out above them all. This is truly his show. Panikkar, who did such fine work last season as Pamino in The Magic Flute, here is even more astonishing. His pure, clear voice displays truly remarkable power. It shines like a beacon above the rest even when the entire cast are singing their hearts out. And his diction is superb. This is a longish opera and Shalimar is a tour de force role; Panikkar triumphs in it!

Soprano Andriana Chuchman sings both the dancer, Boonyi, and Boonyi’s adult daughter, India. She does beautiful work in both. Moreover, she is a truly fine dancer, mastering the Indian style with such grace. In those distinctive crisp, articulate movements of arms, legs, head and hands she seems utterly authentic.

Baritone Gregory Dahl gives a powerful performance as Ambassador Ophuls. Katherine Goeldner is very styrong as the ambassador’s embittered wife. Others worthy of special praise include Thomas Hammons as Shalimar’s father, Geoffrey Agpalo as a teacher who exposes the shame of the young lovers, Aubrey Allicock as the “Iron Mullah” who brings terror to Kashmir, Justin Austin as Boonyi’s father, and Jenni Bank as Shalimar’s mother.

Chorus Master Robert Ainsley gets beautiful work from his large chorus. Some of the chorus numbers are wonderfully powerful and show impressive control of dynamics. Conductor Jayce Ogren handles the orchestra with grace and subtlety. Costumes, by James Schuette, are beautifully appropriate to the period and locale. The villagers are in nicely balanced muted tones, the circus costumes colorful, the “Iron Mullah” and his men fiercely grim and sooty.

Choreography is by Sean Curran. The traditional Indian dancing is lovely and sensuous, but there is an odd little war ballet in one scene depicting Indian soldiers assaulting a group of women in a curiously gymnastically stylized rape that is almost comic. It just doesn’t work.

Allen Moyer, the scenic designer, gives us a vast background of stylized orchards–hundreds of trees, millions of leaves and fronds. Smack across the middle, dividing the image horizontally, is a kind of metal bridge or platform. It’s black and industrial-looking and it chops that idyllic vision off at the knees, as it were. The large area under the bridge is often essentially unlit, so sometimes the entire chorus, while standing there, is literally singing in the dark. Sometimes at scene changes a large panel descends to cover the top or bottom half of our picture. It’s like a Mondrian painting, but with rectangles of stainless steel enclosing projection screens where we see L.A. traffic or a city-scape or a large jet flying right toward us.

I found Christopher Akerlind’s lighting a bit troubling at times. In several scenes we see normal bright light at the front of the stage, with strong footlights giving a theatrical look to faces. Then further upstage is an area lit with a strange rosy-orange glow, and then above all that is the rich blue-green of the orchard background. It’s quite unnatural and I’m not sure what the intent was. Also there is frequent use of starkly-delineated square spot-lights. This, of course can be quite dramatic, but when such a vivid sharp square (with an actor’s sharp silhouette in it) appears against that verdant orchard it effectively cuts a destructive hole into it.

Stage director James Robinson handles this large cast well, though the chorus usually enters as just a crowd coming on, rather than as real individuals. And a few times, near the end of a scene, I was distracted by preparations for the next scene–either on the turntable or in that dark area under the bridge.

So there were, for me, some awkwardnesses in the technical aspects of the show. But the musical and vocal virtues of Shalimar the Clown are enough to make it deserve the thunderous applause with which the curtain call was met.

Shalimar continues at Opera Theatre of St. Louis through June 25.

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Shalimar the Clown World Premiere

UnknownMy new opera, Shalimar the Clown, opens tonight at Opera Theater St. Louis. The opera is based on the 2005 novel by Salman Rushdie, with a libretto by 2016 Obie Award winner and Pulitzer prize finalist Rajiv Joseph. This world-premiere production stars tenor Sean Pannikar and soprano Andriana Chuchman as lovers Shalimar Noman and Boonyi Kaul. The cast includes Greg Dahl, Aubrey Allicock, Jenni Bank, Thomas Hammons, Katharine Goeldner, Geoffrey Apgalo, Elliott Paige and Justin Austin.

Maestro Jayce Ogren conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the OSTL Chorus. Arjun Verma is our sitarist & Javad Butah our tabla maestro. The production and design team, led by director James Robinson, includes Allen Moyer (sets), James Schuette (costumes), Christopher Akerlind (lighting), Tom Watson (wigs and makeup), choreography (Sean Curran) and Greg Emetaz (projections). Maestro Robert Ainsley prepared the magnificent OTSL chorus and our coach and pianist is Andrea Grant.

Ticket & production information

Nine Network Feature, with Salman Rushdie & Rajiv Joseph

Drama with a Purpose, by Philip Kennicott

Aria: “Boonyi” (Sean Pannikar, Jack Perla, Arjun Verma, Nilan Chaudhuri)

Drama with a Purpose


A thoughtful, wonderfully written article in the June issue of Opera News

By Philip Kennicott , chief art and architecture critic for The Washington Post

“A Subtly Cross-Pollinated Marvel”


By Joshua Kosman Updated 2:13 pm, Monday, November 16, 2015

For a company still operating on a dangerously thin margin, the East Bay’s indispensable Festival Opera has been doing pretty much everything right. The company’s most recent offering — an Indian-themed double bill of operatic one-acts — was canny, affecting and beautifully economical. You really couldn’t have asked for more.

Kherani-headerFor this short program, the company put together “Savitri,” Gustav Holst’s gorgeous 1916 chamber
opera, with “River of Light,” a year-old creation by San Francisco composer Jack Perla. The two pieces called out to each in interesting ways, joining India’s mythic past with its contemporary international standing. And even if Sunday’s final performance at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center showed signs of cost-cutting in the staging and presentation, there was no scrimping on musical excellence. Both works, conducted by John Kendall Bailey and featuring casts headed by soprano Maya Kherani, were executed with sensitivity and panache.

For the 40-minute “River of Light,” Kherani returned to give another superb performance as Meera, an anxious Indian immigrant in Oakland trying to figure out how to impart some of her cultural heritage to her newborn daughter. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s libretto too often resorts to brusque shorthand to make its points as it skips from one holiday scene to the next (the piece feels more like a storyboard for a full-length opera than a well-shaped dramatic work in its own right).

But Perla’s score, for a quintet of Indian and Western instruments, is a subtly cross-pollinated marvel, blending long, arching melodies with bursts of coloratura in ways that never seem forced. Meera’s anguished central aria about feeling marooned in a land far from her family and traditions took wing on the strength of Perla’s tender writing and Kherani’s stirring performance. Baritone Daniel Cilli was a bluff, sympathetic figure as Meera’s American-born husband, and Molly Mahoney and Michael Boley added spice as the Fred-and-Ethel next-door neighbors.
The program began with an winning invocation provided by sitarist Arjun Verma, tabla player Nilan Chaudhuri, and dancers Richa Shukla and Gopi — all of whom returned to participate in “River of Light.” This was crossover programming at its most persuasive.

Joshua Kosman is The San Francisco Chronicle’s music critic. E-mail: Twitter: @JoshuaKosman

River of Light Shines at Festival Opera


“Opera has not always told everyone’s story,” Festival Opera’s General Director Sara Nealy remarked in preface to the company’s Nov. 14 performance. But the company’s double-bill at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center last weekend represented a refreshing shift toward inclusivity. With John Kendall Bailey conducting Gustav Holst’s Savitri and the West Coast premiere of Jack Perla’s River of Light, Festival Opera explored Indian cultural narratives, both mundane and divine.

Holst’s Savitri (1909) adapts an episode from the Mahabharata, the world’s longest-known epic poem. After Death claims Savitri’s husband (the woodman Satyavan), Savitri asks in return to receive life in all its fullness. Moved, Death grants her wish, but Savitri then informs him that she cannot truly live without her husband. Death has no choice but to revive him, and the opera ends with the couple reunited.

Holst isn’t known for his operas (before Savitri, he made at least six attempts at the medium) and his mixing of Wagnerian harmonies with modality is often jarring. Such a piece necessitates a good cast, and after a somewhat rocky opening, Saturday night’s performance was largely enjoyable. Singing the role of Savitri, soprano Maya Kherani was initially shaky — surprising, given the high caliber of her past Bay Area performances. But she has a very pretty voice, and she improved as the evening went on. Her aria, in which she asks Death to grant her life, was a highlight. Mexican tenor Jorge Garza was a sincere and warm Satyavan, and only bass-baritone Philip Skinner (Death) could maintain such a grave demeanor in a costume that, comically, looked like Batman’s. The chamber orchestra was consistently strong, with brief but lovely solos by concertmaster Brian Lee and violist Emily Onderdonk.

Festival Opera is a small company with a small budget, and director Tanya Kane-Parry’s staging was powerfully minimalistic. She manipulated levels to suspenseful effect: As Satyavan sings, Death looms behind him, perched on a tree stump. But the lack of scenery and amateurish props made the production seem more like a school play than a professional opera. Holst envisioned an intimate setting for Savitri, but this is a story of literally epic proportions, and Festival Opera’s production needed more pomp.

In contrast, Jack Perla’s River of Light made the space come alive. Perla, a San Francisco-based composer and pianist, wrote the work in 2013 for the Houston Grand Opera’s community initiative HGOco. Kherani debuted the role of Meera, a successful businesswoman and newlywed who has little time or energy to reconnect with her Indian roots. But after the birth of her daughter, Meera longs to recreate the traditions of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Houston-based author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni wrote the libretto, whose references (Children’s Fairyland, The Chapel of the Chimes) were tailored to Oakland for this performance.

The opera is dynamic from its opening Kathak dance (an expressive, classical style from northern India), which was choreographed by Antonia Minnecola and performed by Richa Shukla and Gopi. Kherani was vibrant as Meera, and baritone Daniel Cilli brought his usual charisma to the role of Meera’s husband, Burton. His voice sounded much stronger on Saturday than it did in Festival Opera’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos last summer. Tenor Michael Boley and mezzo-soprano Molly Mahoney, playing the neighbors, rounded out the ensemble.

Perla, who has written operas for the Los Angeles Opera, Opera Theater of Saint Louis, and Seattle Opera, is also active in jazz and world music. His versatility as a composer shines in River of Light, which seamlessly integrates jazzy chords in the keyboard (Ben Malkevitch) with tabla (Nilan Chaudhuri) and sitar (Arjun Verma), violin (Lee), and cello (Amy Brodo). Particularly rewarding is Perla’s use of tabla; rarely is rhythm so present in opera.

“A Gripping Piece of Musical Theater”

Seattle Times

Women in wartime in Seattle Opera’s gripping ‘American Dream’

Nina Yoshida Nelson, who sings the role of Mama, Hiroko Kobayashi, and Hae Ji Chang, in the role of her daughter, Setsuko Kobayashi, in Seattle Opera’s world premiere of “an American Dream.”  The world premiere explores the lives of two Puget Sound women during World War II.
By  Melinda Bargreen   
Special to The Seattle Times

An opera house became a war zone this weekend, in Seattle Opera’s premiere performance of its commissioned one-act opera, “an American Dream.” Set in the Northwest in the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the new opera was introduced through myriad pre- and post-performance presentations of historical information and experiences.

The McCaw Hall lobby was packed with displays, video, newspaper headlines and wartime propaganda. Much of it was hard to absorb, as audience members faced the extent of the anti-Japanese tide that led to the forced evacuation and internment of families like the one featured in the new opera.

Entering the theater, audience members lined up to be “processed” and issued identity cards by unsmiling security guards; other guards manned the exhibits inside. Operagoers could try out the uncomfortable cots in a mock-up detention cell.

The experience continued on the stage, where three community members — Kay Sakai Nakao, Felix Narte Jr., and Lilly Kitamoto Kodama — introduced the opera’s themes by speaking eloquently about their wartime pasts.

Then the opera took over, with Judith Yan capably conducting a 15-piece chamber orchestra in Jack Perla’s score. Full of impressionist and minimalist impulses, with washes of color and repeated motoric elements, it sounded like a meeting of Debussy and Philip Glass. Jessica Murphy Moo’s heart-wrenching, poetic libretto got right to the point in an opening scene with a Japanese-American family hastily burning belongings in the hope of avoiding arrest.

Forced to leave their farm, the Kobayashis accept a fraction of its value from the new owner, an American veteran married to a German Jewish refugee who fears for her parents back home. We follow the course of the war through bits of historic radio broadcasts, setting the stage for the return to the farm of the Kobayashis’ daughter Setsuko.

The spare Robert Schaub set was illuminated early in the opera by swooping, swirling video by Robert Bonniol and Travis Mouffe, lighted by Connie Yun. (It would have been great to have considerably more video in subsequent scenes.)

The unquestioned star of the evening was Hae Ji Chang as the young Setsuko — impassioned, lyrical and lovely of voice — though the other principals were also strong. Morgan Smith was a powerful Jim, opposite D’Ana Lombard’s impassioned Eva; Nina Yoshida Nelsen and Adam Lau were remarkably good as Setsuko’s parents. Peter Kazaras’ staging was direct and unfussy, clarifying the story line.

“An American Dream” is a gripping piece of musical theater, and in the program Seattle Opera announces the availability of this uniquely Northwest piece to tour in small venues throughout the community. It’s hard to think of a better way to teach local history.

Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at

“A Triumph for Seattle Opera”


Saturday, August 22, 2015  | by  PHILIPPA KIRALY

It’s a triumph! It’s riveting. It’s unsettling and uncomfortable. It’s strong. For many it will be emotional. It’s an Experience with a capital E. Go, go, go now and get your tickets for An American Dream, the new opera commissioned by Seattle Opera about our history, our experiences here during WWII, understood through lives displaced and disrupted through no fault of their own. Take the (teenage) kids. There is only one more performance—there were only two planned—this Sunday afternoon, but let’s hope it is presented again soon. (It’s intended to travel, around the state, out of state, wherever it is invited.)

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 2.10.50 PM

The idea of the opera was conceived by Sue Elliott, then director of education at Seattle Opera, who asked for stories from the community answering the question “If you had to leave home today and couldn’t return, what would you take with you?” (The question is all the more poignant today with current stories of families fleeing homes burned by wildfire.)

From the dozens of stories, Jessica Murphy Moo wove a libretto of a Japanese legal immigrant family in 1942 forcibly relocated to a detention center from their prosperous Bainbridge strawberry farm, and the farm sold with little choice at breakdown value to an American veteran and his German Jewish wife. Forced to burn all their Japanese belongings, the American-born daughter hides her precious doll instead, and keeps a letter addressed from Germany to the wife. She in turn is agonized about the fate of her parents in Germany, and she finds the doll, her husband ordering her to burn it, which she doesn’t. Fast forward to postwar 1945, and Setsuko returns, hoping to find her father. Eva, the wife, returns the doll, the girl proffers the letter, which details the death by shooting of Eva’s parents. At the end the Japanese father returns. Here the opera ends, but there can be no happy ending for the two families.  Who now owns the farm? Who will be uprooted again, German Jew, or Japanese family? Who loses?

The music is by opera composer Jack Perla, an atmospheric score which surrounds but never overwhelms the voices, which are fully up to Seattle Opera’s usual high standards with all but one singer new to the company’s stage. Bass Adam Lau as Papa Kobayashi, mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen as his wife and soprano Hae Ji Chang as their teenage daughter Setsuko, with D’Ana Lombard as the German Jewish wife, Eva, and former Young Artist baritone Morgan Smith as the American veteran Jim, all are compelling in their acting, excellent in their singing. Peter Kazaras directs, with a spare set by Robert Schaub, video design setting moods and place by Robert Bonniol, and costumes by Deborah Trout. Judith Yan conducts a chamber orchestra in an admirably well-paced performance supporting but never overwhelming the singers.

The whole is taut, the entire opera is only 67 minutes, but what surrounds it is equally compelling. Two hours before curtain, fascinating videos of elderly camp survivors talking of their experiences and their very normal lives here before the war as well as during it, take place in the McCaw Hall lecture room. Simultaneously, all through the McCaw lobbies on the first two floors are photographs and posters, some discomfiting, showing the fear and hatred of “Japs” bolstered by the government decisions. There are posters of the camp rules and government proclamations regarding them, and a mock-up of an internment camp room expected to hold an entire family. Almost entirely, this is about the Japanese experience here, not about the systematic Nazi extermination of Jews from which Eva, the wife, had escaped, brought to be safe here by her American husband.

Before the opera, three survivors spoke briefly on stage, including 96-year-old Kay Sakai Nakao, Lilly Kitamoto Kodama and Felix Narte, Jr., then a small child whose Philippino family took care of the Kitamoto farm.  And after the opera, Seattle Opera general director Aidan Lang held a talk session with audience and the creative team.

The whole was a tour de force, which must return, soon.

– See more at:

New Recording Set for Release on 7.17.15

Enormous Changes, my third jazz recording, is due out July 17, 2015 on Seattle-based Origin Records. I’m THRILLED this disc is finally hitting the streets, airwaves and interwebs. This was an especially personal project, as I wrote all of the music, and most of the lyrics for the fourteen tracks. The songs focus on love, loss, fatherhood, and a persistent yearning for simplicity in a noisy, complex world. Many thanks to John Bishop at Origin Records for adding Enormous Changes to their fine catalogue!

Pre-order at Origin Records
Pre-order at iTunes
Pre-order at Bandcamp

Music & lyrics by Jack Perla (BMI)
Additional lyrics: (2) David James Brock & Jack Perla; (10) William Taylor; (12) Walt Whitman; (13) Rob Bailis

Produced by Ben Yonas & Jack Perla
Recorded by Ben Yonas at Fantasy Studios, Berkeley, CA
Mixed by Adam Munoz at Fantasy Studios, Berkeley, CA
Mastered by Alan Silverman, Arf Mastering New York, NY
Design by John Bishop, OriginArts
©2015 by Jack Perla/Music Without Walls (BMI)
Unauthorized reproduction is a violation of applicable laws

Seattle Opera Premiere: An American Dream


An American Dream, commissioned by Seattle Opera, receives its world premiere with that company at McCaw Hall on August 21, 2015.  Peter Kazaras directs this amazing cast, which includes D’Ana Lombard, Morgan Smith, Adam Lau, Nina logo-seattle-opera-2015Yoshida-Nelsen and HaeJi Chaeng. Judith Yan is our musical director. I’m in good hands!

Ticket information

An American Dream began as a personal storytelling project hosted by Seattle Opera and the Seattle Film Festival, asking this question: If you had to leave you home today and couldn’t return, what would you take with you, and why is that object – that connection to your past – so important?

What evolved from this inquiry was a taut, finely-woven tale based on the personal experiences of several Puget Sound residents: A Japanese-American family burns their precious belongings from Japan in an attempt to avoid arrest during World War II. The daughter, Setsuko, manages to hide her beloved Hina Matsuri doll before they’re forced to leave their home. A new couple, Jim and Eva, move into the home. Eva, a German Jewish immigrant who is preoccupied by her family’s situation in Germany, doesn’t know the circumstances by which her husband acquired the home. She slowly discovers the truth, both about the family who left and her own.

West Coast Premiere: River of Light

Well, my Bay Area friends, finally an opera event closer to home!

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 12.20.04 PMI’m pleased to announce River of Light will receive its west coast premiere with Festival Opera on November 13 & 14 2015 at the Shadelands Art Center, Walnut Creek, CA.

River of Light tells a new version of the immigrant story through the eyes of one woman. Having moved from India, Meera loves her new husband, her high-powered job, and her lifestyle—until the birth of her daughter makes her long to recreate authentic Diwali traditions at home.

Traditional Indian instruments (sitar & tabla) and dancers augment the cast and orchestra for the production. Choreography by Antonia Minnecola, a rare American artist recognized as a leading exponent of North Indian Kathak dance.

Commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, and with a libretto by award-winning novelist, poet and activist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, River of Light shares a double bill with Savitri, by one of my all-time composer-heroes, Gustav Holst. Savitri is a chamber opera in one act based on the episode of Savitri and Satyavan from the Mahābhārata. 

See you at the premiere!


“A Captivating Community Opera”

Unknown-1Soaring voices drifted to the soaring ceilings of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels two nights last weekend, but it was not a church service. It was community opera: a combination of the powerful music of grand opera with the sweetness and fun of a school play. It was also the world premiere of “Jonah and the Whale,” a one-hour, single-act work, performed by more than 400 members of the arts community, some of them still in grade school. It was the eighth such program by Los Angeles Opera Off Grand.

These two performances drew two nearly sold out audiences that filled the 3,000-seat cathedral, many obviously friends and family Unknownmembers of the cast. The production was charming and the singing glorious. Matthew O’Neill as Jonah projected in strong tones the proper reluctance to leave Israel, where he was quite comfortable, to become a prophet in Assyria, an enemy nation. March 19, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Jonah and the Whale Dress Rehearsal LA Opera Education Department presents “Jonah and the Whale”.  Photos taken in ‘Our Lady of the Angels’ cathedral, Los Angeles, CA, USA Mandatory Credit: Photo by Robert Millard (©) Copyright 2014 Robert Millard

Despite urging from his mother (sung ably by Cassandra Zoe Velasco), and the fact that his former betrothed Sarah (an enthralling soprano, Hae Ji Chang) had been kidnapped and held in that country, Jonah flees in a ship bound for Spain, where he plans to begin a new life. An other-worldy storm at sea, however, leads the sailors to believe God was punishing Jonah for something, and despite the protestations of the captain (Valentin Aniken) they persuade him to jump to spare them. Most of us know what happens next: Jonah wakes up in the belly of a giant whale, but is allowed to escape when he sees the error of his ways and heads for Assyria.

The fanciful sets built around the altar were simple, yet clever, from the painted wooden waves that suggested the ocean, to the ribs inside the great whale. Dozens of children wearing full fish heads or costumes that transformed them into starfish and octopuses represented sea life. The triumph was the construction of a whale, done in pieces and carried around the stage and down the center aisle by human attendants, undulating perfectly, as a whale would.

The acoustics inside the cathedral were just fair: L.A. Opera’s Music Director James Conlon drew energy and vigor from the musicians who came from L.A. Opera, the Colburn School, Hamilton High School Academy of Music, and the Celebration Ringers of Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena. The chorus — made up of the cathedral’s choir, Pueri Cantores San Gabriel Valley Children’s Choir, Sacred Heart School Choir and Schola Cantorum, Holy Family Childrens Concert Chorus and Filipino Chorale, and the Music Center Usher Choir — were tucked behind the stage, and seemed somewhat muffled; that was unfortunate since those singers represented the voice of God.

“Jonah and the Whale” was L.A. Opera’s first commissioned work for the Off Grand program. Composer Jack Perla and librettist Velina Hasu Houston delivered a gorgeous work that included songs to be sung by the Congregation (the audience) based in part on old American folk tunes. The direction by Eli Villanueva was spot-on.

Normally L.A. Opera productions are staged in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center, which is on Grand Avenue downtown. The Off Grand events cover special performances in other venues, including the downtown cathedral. Tickets are free but must be reserved in advance. “Opera was born in the church in medieval times,” Conlon told the audience on Saturday night. “Operas began as the theatrical realization of some of the passion plays and Bible stories.”

Opera has come a long way in developing as its own fine art, but Conlon wanted to return to its roots and open up the experience of beautiful music and engaging stories to families, as performers and audience. The first such production was Benjamin Britten’s “Noah’s Flood” in 2007, which was repeated several times over the last several years, in rotation with two other short operas.

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Jonah: “Opera Audience Gets a New Role”

Unknown-1The latest example of Los Angeles Opera’s effort to bring new audiences to the art form is its ‘Jonah and the Whale’ production, which included a singalong and free tickets.
By Gloria Goodale, Staff writer | 

Mix a singalong, some classical performers, and a well-loved Bible tale and if you strike just the right notes, you will get Los Angeles Opera’s latest initiative to shed its formal trappings and recast the art form as a community experience for audiences.

During two days in March, the nation’s youngest, large-scale opera company presented the critically lauded “Jonah and the Whale,” an hour-long première inside the city’s new downtown modern cathedral.

Local children clad in elaborate and colorful silk costumes played sea creatures – fish, squid, and starfish – swirling around Jonah as he fell into the ocean. Pro and amateur musicians from L.A. Opera, The Colburn Music School, the Academy of Music at Hamilton High School, and Celebration Ringers of Pasadena’s Lake Avenue Church made up the orchestra.

From the start, it was clear this would not be your father’s opera. Tickets were free of charge. Children in jeans made up a section of the audience. And, oh yes, the audience participated in a “rehearsal” so all could sing along at key moments.

This deep reach into the local community is the outgrowth of L.A. Opera’s ongoing commitment to bring new audiences to an old art form.

The inspiration behind this latest performance began during the celebration of Benjamin Britten’s 100th birthday in 2013. The company produced the British composer’s community masterwork, “Noye’s Fludde,” which calls for the community to perform alongside professionals.

“Having admired and conducted Benjamin Britten’s ‘Noye’s Fludde’ for many years, I felt that there should be more works like it that bring together the entire musical community, combining professional and amateur musicians, choirs, soloists, and – most of all – children,” says James Conlon, L.A. Opera music director, via e-mail. While the scale of “Noye’s Fludde” has never been replicated, he says “Jonah and the Whale” is a first step toward performing works with more audience participation. This kind of community opera, and one that exposes children to classical works, is important to the future of opera, he says.

The ability of the company to take these professionals and meld them with more than 400 people from schools and churches in the area is unique, says Robert Thomas, music critic for the Pasadena Star-News. “This project sets the bar high for other companies but not unreasonably high,” he adds in an e-mail. In an era in which many public schools are cutting back arts education, “these sorts of ventures help to fill that gap,” notes Mr. Thomas.

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Los Angeles Opera Premiere: Jonah & the Whale


Jonah & the Whale was commissioned by Los Angeles Opera. With a wonderful, imaginative libretto by Velina Hasu Houston, the piece re-imagines the biblical hero’s struggle with God & faith, his reluctance to forgive, and ultimate enlightenment through the encouragement of a feisty chorus of krill and other sea-creatures met in the belly of the famous whale. Based on the familiar Old Testament tale, Jonah and the Whale explores the universal themes of overcoming personal fear and the burden of responsibility for the greater good of humankind. When God asks Jonah to prophesy to the sinful people of Nineveh, the fearful Jonah attempts to flee by sea, where he is thrown overboard during a storm. A great fish swallows Jonah, but he emerges safely after agreeing to fulfill God’s orders.

Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels
555 West Temple Street, Los Angeles, CA 9001

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