Seattle Opera’s “An American Dream” spotlights Japanese American injustice

Nina Yoshida Nelsen (who plays Hiroko Kobayashi) will return for Seattle Opera’s revival of “An American Dream.” She is pictured here with Hae Ji Chang (who played Setsuko Kobayashi) from the 2015 Seattle production. (Photo by Philip Newton for Seattle Opera)

For the 75th anniversary of the Executive Order 9066 — which imprisoned 120,000 people in concentration camps during World War II simply because they were of Japanese descent — Seattle Opera is reviving a production directly addressing the wartime injustice.

“An American Dream,” which Seattle Opera premiered in 2015, will get a new outing in August, presented in a refreshed production with a mostly new cast, and with community partnerships to put the events depicted in the chamber opera into historical and political context.

Librettist Jessica Murphy Moo said the opera grew out of a community storytelling initiative, which she said places the roots of “An American Dream” in the Pacific Northwest. The fictional story based on historical events weave together the stories of a Japanese American family and a Jewish family after Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Our community knows this story well, and some have lived the events firsthand. This story, we hope, honors their experiences and reminds us that we have to be vigilant against this kind of injustice and racism,” Murphy Moo said.

The opera company also will bring their production to Washington Hall, a historically significant community venue, rather than in its usual opera house venue of McCaw Hall.

“We want to introduce opera to new audiences,” said Gabrielle Nomura Gainor, media relations manager with Seattle Opera. “And with a racial equity lens, share our art form with diverse demographics. Putting this chamber opera in a setting outside McCaw Hall in an appropriate space helps that intention.”

This production follows a fair amount of criticism from the Asian American theater community for its recent presentation of “Madame Butterfly,” which some said presented racial and female stereotypes and non Asian casting in Asian roles.

Seattle Opera general director Aidan Lang said, “Presenting work that reflects our diverse community is crucial to the success of Seattle Opera.”

Lang said the opera company acknowledges the criticism it received over “Madame Butterfly” and he says “An American Dream” demonstrates its intent to “move racial equity forward in the arts.”

The current production is different from the 2015 version because this time Densho and the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) will be heavily involved in the production, Gainor said.

“We have jointly curated audio-visual testimonials to be featured at the beginning of the program,” she said. Also, other Asian American organizations and Amnesty International, American Civil Liberties Union, Museum of History and Industry and the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum will provide information on site.

Another new focus will be a post-show Q&A for each of the six performances curated by the Seattle chapter of theJapanese American Citizens League, according to chapter president Sarah Baker. The Q&A will feature experts to talk about the implications and lessons of the Japanese American incarceration in today’s world, the power of words and racial terminology. The Q&A sessions will include Japanese American community members, and well as Muslim and Sikh speakers.

“The Seattle JACL feels that it is extremely important for the story of Japanese American incarceration to be told, and this is especially true when it comes to the arts,” Baker said. “Opera has a long and illustrious history, but a lot of the content within opera is racist, sexist or otherwise challenges our current definitions of what is socially acceptable in terms of how particular groups of people are portrayed.”

Baker feels that having an opera like “An American Dream” is a “great chance for folks to be educated about the incarceration story through a different means than going to a workshop or hearing someone speak on the subject. As a work of art it has the ability to touch people in a very personal way and simultaneously educate an audience that may not have known this history before.”

One of the post-show panelists, Joseph Shoji Lachman, who is involved with JACL and also has worked for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, thinks it is relevant for Seattle Opera to present this play.

“We will have American Muslim speakers and discuss why it’s important to both remember the Japanese American story and also talk about what’s happening now with immigrants and Muslims.”

“We have to make sure we are talking to our AAPI people as well as people outside our community,“ Lachman said. “The opera audience is a largely white and upper class population so it’s good that Seattle Opera is taking advantage of its unique position to tell this story of a marginalized community and our history.”

Baker added, “Similarly I think folks who are already aware of the incarceration story may get a lot out of seeing this opera — it is always affirming to see popular works that represent you or your familial story.”