Seattle Opera’s Latest Commission Unearths Local History
In 2011, the educational department of the Seattle Opera launched an ongoing campaign to increase community interaction. The Belonging(s) Project, as it’s called, asked the general public to send in stories about their most valued possessions. Specifically: “If you had to leave your home today and couldn’t return, what would you take with you?” In the months following, stories rolled in. And folks at the Opera, including communications editor Jessica Murphy Moo, heard them all.
“In a sense we were crowdsourcing,” Moo says.
Moo and composer Jack Perla were commissioned by the Opera to sift through the public’s responses and create an original work from what they found. The idea was to mine the material for a story derived from the community. “It started as a way to tap into the wealth of knowledge that we have in our community and see if opera could tell that story,” Moo says. “It’s been a process of listening to history, this living history.”
Two particular storylines stuck out. One was from a woman named Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, a Japanese-American woman who submitted a pickle jar full of thousands of shells she gathered as a girl, when her family was removed from Vashon Island and interned by Tule Lake in northern California during WWII. The other was from a woman named Marianne Weltmann, who submitted a book she brought from her German home when her family fled the Nazis before the outbreak of WWII.
“So we had these two stories from the same period that had some resonance with one another,” Moo says. From those stories, Moo—who has contributed fiction and nonfiction to The Atlantic, Poets & Writers Magazine and Image and is an instructor of nonfiction at University of Washington—began constructing the libretto for Seattle Opera’s newest original work, An American Dream, which plays at McCaw Hall on Aug. 21 and 23.
Using Weltmann’s story and Grueneweld’s published memoir, Looking Like the Enemy, as starting points, An American Dream traces the story of two Vashon Island families and the personal impact of WWII on those living thousands of miles from any front. The stature of the Nazi Holocaust weighs heavily on world history, but less scrutinized is America’s own racist internment program, which involved roughly 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans, many actual U.S. citizens and thousands from the Puget Sound area, were rounded up and held for years in spartan camps across the West. It’s a dark period of American history too seldom held to the light. An American Dream dwells in that dark space.
“It’s not a happy story,” Moo says.
In writing her first libretto, Moo had to “unlearn” a lot of her writing habits.
“I had very few words to work with,” she says. “When your characters are singing, it slows everything down. It’s allowing characters a moment to sing an aria and express the emotional impact of a moment and balancing that with moving the story forward.” Moo’s fiction is usually realistic, she says, “and there are moments when I had to stretch the language and push it into a lyricism I wouldn’t necessarily bring to my fiction.”
Perla, a San Francisco-based pianist and composer, offered his experience in developing opera, advising Moo on where to shift from aria to duet to recitative, where characters sing in an almost conversational style.
“There’s a balance of small moments where the singers have a back-and-forth, but you have to let the singers sing, because that’s what they’re amazing at,” she says.
The first time the whole ensemble workshopped the production, with singers and orchestra doing a full read-through, Moo says she was so stunned at the scope and impact of the work that she couldn’t sleep that night. Along with the emotional impact of opera, the story itself brings its own significance, both profound and personal.
“Another question the education department asked,” Moo says, “was, what if opera was about the here and now rather than the long ago that so many operas bring to life? So An American Dream is in some ways and answer to that question. The story is from the past but it’s very much a part of this region.”