Chicago Shimpo
Opera: An American Dream Brings Full of Emotions

• Opera “An American Dream” that expressed tragedies of Japanese Americans (JAs) and Jewish woman, was premiered in Chicago on March 15 and 17 at the Harris Theatre.

• An American Dream, composed by Jack Perla and written by Jessica Murphy Moo, was originally premiered in 2015 by Seattle Opera. The Chicago performance was brought by Lyric Unlimited, which was founded seven years ago to develop community engagement programs. Yonsei, fourth generation of JA, Mathew Ozawa directed the Chicago premiere.

• At pre-performance talk in the theater, Naomi Paik, assistant professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois spoke about JA incarceration, and Elinor Olin, associate professor of music at Northern Illinois University, explained the opera piece.

• According to Elinor Olin, An American Dream started with 170 interviews with the same question “If you had to leave your home with no warning, what one item would you take with you? “ It started with Seattle Opera’s Belonging Project.
• Marianne Weltmann, who had escaped Nazi Germany, said that she chose a book about her home town. Mary Matsuda Grunewald, a JA who was incarcerated during WWII, chose a bottle of shells which she had collected as a girl. Characters of Eva and Setsuko were drawn from their stories.

• Is a home or memorabilia intangible, a phantom like thing?
• Opera An American Dream starts with the Kobayashis’ home on a Puget Sound Island in Washington. The beauty of the house is very impressive. There is no wall inside and outside of the house, but some windows and doors imply the house layout. The transparency of the house may suggest intangible entity of the house.

• After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Papa, Makoto Kobayashi (played by AO Li), Mama, and Hiroko, prepare to burn everything related to Japan to avoid arrest by the FBI. Nina Yoshida Nelsen, whose grandmother was incarcerated, plays the role of Mama. Papa sings Japanese song Sakura Sakura and throws the record away to burn.

• Their daughter Setsuko (played by So Young Park) is unable to throw away her hina doll and hides it under the floor board in her bedroom. She sings, “You were grandmother’s then mother’s and now mine.”

• Jim Crowley (Christopher Magiera), a war veteran, appears on the stage with his new wife Eva (Catherine Martin) who escaped from Germany. While Eva is outside of the house, Jim pushes Papa to sell his home and land at the price of next to nothing. A FBI agent comes and arrests Papa. In a deep despair, Papa sells the house to Jim. Setsuko promises Papa to see each other after war is ended. Eva, who doesn’t know the situation, wonders why the Kobayashis are leaving from such a beautiful place.

• When Mama and Setsuko are about to leave their home, Setsuko receives a letter which is addressed to Eva from Germany. With a strong anger, Setsuko hides it and bring it with her to an internment camp.

• Several weeks later, Jim and Eva move in the house, and Eva dreams to unite with her parents who are still in Germany. While she prepares Setsuko’s former bedroom for her parents, she finds the hina doll under the floor board. Jim says to throw it away, but Eva keeps it for its owner. She sings, “Don’t say a word, just like my Moma and Papa. If you hide, no one finds you.”

• At an internment camp, Setsuko receives a letter from Eva. She says in the letter that she has something for her, something from her past.
• Setsuko’s Mama, who is gravely ill, askes Setsuko about the letter. She instantly makes up a story about Papa and tells Mama about the earlier promise to see each other back at home.

• In August, 1945, Jim and Eva were at home and listening to the radio which is broadcasting President Truman’s statement that an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
• After the end of the war, Setsuko, who lost her mother in the camp, knocked on the door of her former house and blames Jim for pushing her Papa to sell the house at a cheap price. Jim defends himself that he married Eva without a house and was thinking only about making Eva happy.
• Librettist Jessica Murphy Moo wondered what conversations between middle-aged war veteran and teenager Setsuko look like and created the conversations between Jim and Setsuko.
• While Eva goes to bring the hina doll back to Setsuko, she says to Jim that the real reason for her visit was to return the letter to Eva. Eva reads the letter and knows that her parents were shot in front of their house years ago.

• What does a house mean to Setsuko and Eva?
• The two sing, “They said America would be a good place for…,” “None can escape the autumn’s pull toward the Earth,” “None can escape the tides that flow to the shore,” “Is home just a place of shadows where foot-steps have no sound?”

• Elinor Olin said, “Opera is about human emotions. It doesn’t matter what language it is in. And just like opera we can all get along even we speak different languages. If you only listen to the feeling, you love it.” Olin is a daughter, granddaughter, and great granddaughter of a California family who were among 120,000 JAs incarcerated in remote relocation camps in 1942 until the end of WWII.

Scenes from An American Dream. (Photos: courtesy of Lyric Opera)