An American Dream
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In Review > North America

An American Dream

SEATTLE
Seattle Opera
8/21/15

In Review Seattle American Dream hdl 1 1115
Smith and Chang in Seattle Opera’s Dream
© Elise Bakketun

BARBED WIRE AND ARMED GUARDS in dark glasses met audiences arriving for the two premiere performances of composer Jack Perla and librettist Jessica Murphy Moo’s opera, An American Dream. The guards issued tags with the names of Japanese–Americans sent in 1942 to an assembly center and then to an incarceration camp: “Have this on your person at all times.” We viewed a social justice timeline and some propaganda with inflammatory images. More guards had us sit on a thin mattress in a horse stall: “These are your new quarters.” Exhibits with videos, photos and a daunting amount of words filled the McCaw Hall lobby. Finally: “Attention! This is your second call to report to your seats. You have five minutes.”

But An American Dream (seen Aug. 21 and 23) avoided agitprop and was hardly about the camps at all: its real subject was its characters’ various dreams of an American home. Moreover, the lobby blitz, the camps, the injustice, and the nature of other striking music dramas well under two hours in length (Elektra, Wozzeck, The Makropulos Case, The Rape of Lucretia, Written on Skin) set one up for a level of intensity that the ninety-minute American Dream didn’t deliver. It was touching, sometimes sentimental, sometimes beautifully lyrical but almost never intensely dramatic.

Much can be traced to the work’s origin. In 2011, Seattle Opera asked the public, “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?” From dozens of responses, Perla and Moo, Seattle Opera’s communications editor, chose to intertwine the World War II experiences of two women — a Japanese–American and a German Jew. The finished opera retains little of their experiences but betrays a struggle to craft one story from two and, to make the connection, places an awkward dependence on objects — letters and a doll.

In 1942, on a Puget Sound island, Mr. and Mrs. Kobayashi and their teenage daughter Setsuko, fearful of arrest, burn things that link them to Japan, but Setsuko hides a Hinamatsuri doll. When her father is arrested, Jim, an American veteran, coerces him into selling their home for a fraction of its worth, and the father vows to return for Setsuko. As she and her mother leave for internment, Setsuko receives and pockets a letter from Germany for Eva, Jim’s German wife, who hopes her parents can escape Germany and live with them. Eva finds the doll and vows to return it at war’s end. In 1945, Eva writes Setsuko that she has something of hers. When Eva reads Setsuko’s response, Jim tells Eva that Setsuko is not allowed in their home. After her mother dies in incarceration, Setsuko arrives, confronts Jim over the coerced home sale and, when Eva produces the doll, gives her the letter from Germany, from which Eva learns that her parents had been shot to death. Setsuko’s father arrives and embraces her.

Germany’s surrender, the bombing of Hiroshima and Japan’s surrender are reported by radio as the opera proceeds. Caught by events beyond their control in a drama more of circumstance than of character, the principals sing several times, singly and together, “None can escape the autumn’s pull toward the earth. None can escape the tides that flow to the shore.” Puccini-like knife-twisting draws compassion for the women, whose motivations aren’t always clear. Only after three years does Setsuko say that anger made her pocket the letter; it wasn’t clear at the time. Of the five characters, only Jim is vividly drawn.

Perla gives Jim — the confident, uncomplicated American — Copland-like music with basic fifths, while the others get exotic harmonies suggestive of Debussy; Perla also cites as influences Messiaen and Dutilleux. The fifteen-player orchestra has a makeup very like those of Britten’s chamber operas. A florid flute introduces Setsuko’s air to the doll; piano and harp usher in Eva’s air to her new home. Jim and Eva unpack to the comically percussive “Boxes, so many boxes.” Piano oscillations are frequent. The prelude to the opera expands to a beautiful, watery evocation of Puget Sound from the full orchestra that sounds rather like the Rhine at the beginning of Das Rheingold.

Korean soprano Hae Ji Chang, lovely and girlish of voice and person as Setsuko, and American baritone Morgan Smith, magnificent as Jim, were the two standouts. D’Ana Lombard sang Eva with passion, but her vibrato was sometimes wide and her tone sometimes thin. Black-timbred bass Adam Lau was solid as Kobayashi, and mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen was better low than high as his wife. Judith Yan’s conducting seemed transparent. Peter Kazaras provided straightforward stage direction in minimal sets by Robert Schaub with fluid, suggestive video projections by Robert Bonniol. —Mark Mandel 

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