Opera patrons tend to glide toward their seats, downing last drops of Prosecco before the doors close.
But this Seattle opera wants to draw you in from the moment you step into the grand hall. Case in point: Patrons entering the McCaw Hall lobby pass through a checkpoint where actors dressed as guards assign numbers.
“This is your family number,” they tell you, “please keep it with you at all times.”
The idea is to recreate the experience of Japanese-Americans incarcerated during World War II. It’s just one of the unusual storytelling efforts Seattle Opera uses in its latest production, called “An American Dream.”
Here’s another: Jessica Murphy Moo crafted the libretto based on a question posed to people in the community. The question: “If you had to leave home today, what would you take with you, and why?” How people answered this question formed the raw material for the opera which premieres this weekend.
“The idea was, what if we created an opera that had everything to do with the here and now in a way that sometimes some of the classic operas don’t do,” she said.
“An American Dream” intertwines the World War II-era stories of a Japanese-American girl on Bainbridge Island who is incarcerated with her family, and a Jewish refugee arriving from Europe. Both characters are based on Seattle women.
Using regional history and voices for inspiration seems to be gaining ground outside of Seattle as well. Murphy Moo said she has heard of multiple operas taking shape around the country that are based on real-life stories. “There’s something happening on a broader scale,” she said.
The story of Japanese-Americans sent to camps in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor enticed 21-year old Katie Cunningham to attend the opera for the first time. “I always think of opera as being in different languages and not as current and relatable,” she said, but this project “is a very personal story.”
Cunningham and her uncle Bill Tashima are members of the Japanese American Citizens League, which gave input during the creation of the opera.
They asked the opera to use the term “concentration camp” instead of “internment camp,” which Tashima said softens what actually happened. That’s not to equate their experience to the Holocaust – Tashima said the camps in Europe could be more accurately termed “death camps.”
During the war, Tashima’s mother and grandparents were forced to leave their farm in Wapato, Washington. Tashima said he hopes opera-goers consider how racism persists today.
“How racial hysteria, stereotyping, ignorance – and I don’t mean ignorance from stupidity but from not knowing your neighbors, can lead to drastic actions that have devastating impact,” he said.
The guards they first encountered were mild-mannered, but after passing through, Tashima said he found the “minor inconvenience” became a meaningful gesture.
“Just standing in line and getting a number and being told that you have to wear it reflects the fact that everybody that was taken away from their home was no longer a person but a number,” he said.
Upstairs, the opera’s education director Barbara Lynne Jamison pointed out a horse stall. This is a replica of the housing conditions that awaited Japanese-American families at the nearby Puyallup Assembly Center.
“People can come sit on these cots and just feel how small this was and this is what people lived in,” Jamison said.
The opera is set in a farmhouse on “a nearby island,” as a Japanese-American family reluctantly prepares to leave. The daughter, Setsuko, protests against the new arrivals waiting to move into their farmhouse. Later, the new occupant, a Jewish refugee named Eva, finds a doll that Setsuko hid, which reminds her of what she has lost as well.
Opera spokeswoman Gabrielle Gainor said a project like might appeal to people who wouldn’t otherwise attend the opera.
“We have a bit of a PR problem because I think a lot of people think opera’s inaccessible or in another language or people are not going to have any sort of human connection with it,” Gainor said.
A performance like this draws people with a personal connection to the history being related. “That’s what we want to do, and show that opera is not about long ago and far away, but it’s about us,” she said.
For this project, people contributed so many compelling stories. Murphy Moo said the hard part was leaving behind material to shape this drama.
“It’s like, the person behind you in the checkout stand has an amazing story,” she said. “So that part of it has been really humbling.”