The Chicago Premiere of Perla’s An American Dream

United StatesUnited States Jack Perla, An American Dream: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago / Daniela Candillari (conductor), Harris Theater, Chicago,15.3.2019. (JLZ)

So Young Park, Catherine Martin, & Christopher Magiera
in An American Dream (c) Todd Rosenberg

Director – Matthew Ozawa
Lighting Designer – Lee Fiskness
Costume Designer – Izumi Inaba
Scenic Designer – Andrew Boyce

Eva Crowley – Catherine Martin
Jim Crowley – Christopher Magiera
Setsuko Kobayashi – So Young Park
Hiroko Kobayashi – Nina Yoshida Nelsen
Makoto Kobayashi – Ao Li

The Chicago premiere of Jack Perla’s An American Dream is the latest offering by Lyric Unlimited, a venue that included the opera Fellow Travelers last season. Like Fellow Travelers, An American Dream is a chamber work, with its cast of five principals accompanied by a fifteen-member ensemble and conducted by Daniela Candillari. The libretto by Jessica Murphy Moo is based on a community story-telling project in Seattle, where the work had its premiere in 2017 Set in World War II, the text concerns the Kobayashi family forced into internment camps by the US government. As a result, the family must sell its house, with the American veteran Jim Crowley paying less than market value, so that he can secure a place for himself and his German-Jewish bride Eva. When the house changes hands, Eva discovers a doll the daughter Setsuko left in a bedroom and, against her husband’s wishes Eva uses this artifact to connect with Setsuko. The culminating scene brings out the ideas of estrangement and disillusionment. Eva final receives word about the parents she left in German, and Setsuko faces her new life as an orphan at the end of the War.

The atmospheric music Perla used for this work supports Murphy Moo’s almost symbolist text. Musical and textural motives recur in the eight scenes that comprise this work, as recitative and arioso-like passages convey the text. The implicit melancholy in the text is anchored in a score that makes free use of modality to underscore the narrative. While the ethnicity of the principal characters is essential to the libretto, the music does not make use of musical stereotypes. Rather, the impressionist-writing mitigates the ethic differences in the text.  Perla’s writing makes the story universal and avoids the kinds of stereotypes that were raised in the discussion following the premiere.

The staging itself conveyed the centrality of the house at the core of the libretto. For this single-act continuous work, the set facilitated movement between scenes. Likewise, the lighting and colors were essential to the tone.

Among the performers, So Young Park stands out for her poignant depiction of Setsuko. Within the course of an hour, Park must change from a girl to a young woman, and she does so convincingly. More than that, her phrasing and diction drew the audience into her scenes, especially the one in which Setsuko hides the Japanese doll in anticipation of a happy return at some point in the future. The lines addressed to the doll become a kind of soliloquy in a scene that echoes such touching moments in recent opera, as ‘Batter my heart’ in John Adams’s Doctor Atomic. Nina Yoshida Nelsen was similarly strong as Setsuko’s mother, and Ao Li made her father memorable in this very short work. Christopher Magiera’s rich baritone gave aural shape to the difficult character of Jim Crowley, with his solid sense of pitch making the final scenes remain in memory. Catherine Martin moved seamlessly between declamatory passages and lyric outbursts that suggest the power in her warm mezzo soprano voice.

Limited to two performances, the second on March 17, An American Dream was a fine choice to include in the present season. The solid score and well-thought staging made this a memorable evening of a thought-provoking work. It certainly added to the impact Lyric Unlimited can have in bringing new works to Chicago audiences.

James L. Zychowicz

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