A preview of Jack Perla and Jessica Murphy Moo’s “An American Dream,” commissioned by Seattle Opera and based on wartime memories of two Northwest residents.
If you had to leave your home today and couldn’t return, what would you want to take with you?
Why is that object, that memory or that connection to your past so important?
The answers to those questions can tell you a lot about someone. They can also inspire an opera.
‘An American Dream’
Composed by Jack Perla, libretto by Jessica Murphy Moo, 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 21 and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 23, McCaw Hall, Seattle Center; $50-$125 (206-389-7676 or seattleopera.org).
That is the case with “An American Dream,” a new chamber opera set in our region in wartime, and created by San Francisco-based composer Jack Perla, with a libretto by Jessica Murphy Moo. It will premiere in a two-performance run Aug. 21 and 23 at McCaw Hall.
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Seattle Opera developed the historically sparked, 90-minute, small-cast work about American dreams, found and lost, through an unusual process of public engagement.
In 2011, the opera set up a booth at McCaw Hall to invite patrons to name special objects they would save in an emergency and to discuss their symbolism and significance. There, and in a similar setup at the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI), dozens of people participated, and a “digital quilt” of some of their videotaped responses for the so-named Belonging(s) Project was posted on the Seattle Opera website.
But Sue Elliott, then the opera’s dynamic education director, envisioned another outcome of the Belonging(s) Project: an opera similar to community-based works developed and produced by her former employer, the Houston Grand Opera.
Seattle Opera commissioned Moo and Perla (who has composed community-related operas for the Houston and Los Angeles opera companies) to create the piece. And in 2014, new general manager Aidan Lang gave the green light to premiere “An American Dream” at McCaw this summer.
In her libretto, Moo, a fiction writer and journalist who is also Seattle Opera’s communications editor, interwove memories contributed by two local residents.
Marianne Weltmann, a German Jewish musician and teacher, came to the U.S. as a child to escape Nazi oppression. Author and speaker Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, a Vashon Island native, spent part of her childhood incarcerated in Japanese -American internment centers during World War II.
Moo met with both women, who are now in their 80s, to learn more about their backgrounds. “Marianne is a fascinating woman, a vocal coach and former University of Washington music teacher and an opera singer herself,” she noted.
Gruenewald authored the memoir “Looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese American Internment Camps.” She shared her World War II memories in a 2012 news story. “ In the photo she was holding a jar of shells she collected in a camp,” said Murphy. “She spoke about how her family burned some of their Japanese possessions, including ceremonial dolls, in fear of the FBI searching the house and arresting them as traitors.”
Gruenewald and Weltmann inspired the central figures in “An American Dream,” but Moo used different names and fictionalized the characters. And Perla expressed their perceptions and feelings via his Debussy-influenced score.
Perla said he wanted to create both a “Northwest impression” and evoke the Japanese heritage of some of the characters by using “clear transparent textures, colored delicately, and pastoral sonorities perturbed and unsettled by dissonance shifting in and out of focus like passing clouds.”
“The opera is scored almost identically to Benjamin Britten’s ‘The Turn of the Screw, ’” he explained. It calls for a small orchestra of winds, strings, brass, percussion and piano.
Set in 1942, on an unnamed Puget Sound island, the libretto follows teenager Setsuko Kobayashi (soprano Hae Ji Chang) as her father is arrested and she’s sent with other relations to a detention camp.
Their uprooting is decreed by a federal order, issued amid government fears that Japanese Americans would aid Japan’s war effort. More than 100,000 Pacific Coast citizens of Japanese descent were removed from their homes and incarcerated in rural encampments.
In the opera, two other characters, German-Jewish immigrant Eva (soprano D’Ana Lombard) and her American husband, Jim (baritone Morgan Smith), move into the farmhouse that Setsuko’s family hastily vacates. Jim (unbeknown to his wife) has bought it for a price well below its value.
Eva discovers this ugly truth when she finds some of the Kobayashis’ possessions in the house — including a favorite Japanese doll of Setsuko’s.
And Eva’s desperate efforts to contact her own parents in Germany, and bring them to the U.S., also figure in “An American Dream,” which closes with a dramatic showdown between Setsuko and Eva at the war’s end.
“The internment part of the opera,” comments Perla, “is not easy to look at, it’s not flattering to the U.S. in the light of history — but Jessica created such a compact, taut and beautiful libretto, it made it possible to do so.”
“I’ve learned so much about this place where I live by talking to people about these belongings questions,” reflects Murphy. “As recipients of these stories, I wanted to find a way to honor them.”
Seattle Opera is offering an hourlong educational program before each performance of “An American Dream,” with film documentaries, talks by former camp internees and other Puget Sound residents during World War II, and historical exhibits coordinated with the Wing Luke Museum, Washington State Jewish Historical Society and other groups. There will also be post-show discussions.