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 mbargreen@aol.com

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“A Triumph for Seattle Opera”

By  PHILIPPA KIRALY | Saturday, August 22, 2015

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.)

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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: http://cityartsonline.com/articles/triumph-seattle-opera#sthash.I6kWzwVk.dpu

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
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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

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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!

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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!

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“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 www.MillardPhotos.com

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 | 

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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

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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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Houston Grand Opera Premiere: River of Light

RIVER-art-newCommissioned by Houston Grand Opera, River of Light is the final work in the East + West series. With a libretto by beloved author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni,  the work is a brief one-act opera dramatizing main character Meera’s yearning for an authentic Diwali celebration in Houston, far from her home and family in India. Over the course of the 30 minute piece, Meera comes to a new understanding of the true meaning of Diwali. River of Light incorporates North Indian raga and bhajans, and blends sitar, harmonium & tabla with piano, violin, cello and operatic voices.

7:30pm, March 29 & 2pm March 30, 2014
The Asia Society of Houston
1370 Southmore Blvd.
Houston, TX 77004

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