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  | 

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