(Photos: Elise Bakketun for Seattle Opera)
A uniquely homegrown opera will be unveiled this weekend in a Friday premiere, and a Sunday repeat: Seattle Opera’s new An American Dream
. Inspired by the stories told by local residents about their most prized possessions, filmed by Seattle Opera in the company’s 2011 “Belonging(s)” project, this 90-minute opera by composer Jack Perla
is set in our region during World War II.
The idea of a community-related opera arising from those stories came from the Opera’s former education director Sue Elliott
, who asked the company’s communications editor Jessica Murphy Moo
if she would write the libretto.
“She knew I wrote fiction, so she asked me to submit my work,” Moo remembers. “After some time went by—enough that I thought I didn’t have a prayer—she hired me. It didn’t seem to bother her that I hadn’t written a libretto. She had worked with Jack Perla before for new works at Houston Grand Opera, and with the approval of Seattle Opera, she hired him to be the composer. My understanding is that she had shown him my writing as well to be sure he was on board with working with me.”
|TUNE IN FOR THE BROADCAST!
Classical KING FM broadcasts An American Dream on air Saturday, August 22 at 8pm. Tune in at 98.1 FM or stream online at bit.ly/king981.
Moo and Perla watched all the “Belonging(s)” stories and ultimately decided to focus on two intersecting ones from the same time period for this intimate, small-scale opera set in 1942 on an unnamed island in Puget Sound.
“One was the story from a Japanese American woman (Mary Matsuda Gruenewald
) who, as a child in one of the Japanese American detention centers during World War II, had collected hundreds of thousands of shells. She made them into jewelry to keep herself busy and focused. The other story was from a woman (Marianne Weltmann
, a well-known singer and voice teacher) who had left Germany as a six-year-old in order to escape the Nazis. Her possession was a book about her hometown of Stettin.”
Interviews with these two fascinating women, now in their 80s, gave Moo a wealth of detail for the fictional story about an American and his German-Jewish immigrant wife, who move into the farmhouse unwillingly vacated by a Japanese-American family who are interned in a detention camp. Distilling all this into a libretto, however, wasn’t easy.
“Writing a libretto is very, very tricky,” Moo explains. “You have very few words on the page to move the story forward. You have to find those high-emotion spots where it makes sense for an aria or a duet or an ensemble. Choosing the words was tricky too. I found you need to balance the literal—the story needs to make sense—with the opportunity to go lyrical (we don’t sing to each other in real life, so there’s room to be more lyrical with the language in some moments).
“The other added challenge is that opera is a collaborative endeavor, so the language had to make musical sense to the composer. Something about the words had to inspire Jack to put them to music.”
It took many drafts, a lot of tweaking and workshopping, to shape An American Dream
into its current form. Moo says that even in the last few weeks of rehearsal, the collaborators have been “changing a few moments here and there as the singers get deeper into their roles, and as stage director Peter Kazaras
defines his interpretation of the piece. After the workshop we realized that the mother character needed an aria, so we created that.”
But the results have been more than worth the effort.
“So many moments are far more powerful than I could have imagined them,” Moo muses. “I couldn’t sleep the night after the first time I heard the singers and the orchestra together. I’m not making that up. I couldn’t go to sleep!”
Operagoers can get deeper into the An American Dream
experience with hour-long pre-performance educational programs, including documentary film, comments from Japanese Americans who were interned during the war, and historical exhibits (from such sources as the Wing Luke Museum
and Washington State Jewish Historical Society
And, as always at Seattle Opera, there are post-show talks. The performances start at 8 p.m. Aug. 21 and 2:30 p.m. Aug. 23, in McCaw Hall; tickets are $50-$125. It’s an opportunity to see and hear local history unfold in a brand-new way.