An American Dream

Music by Jack Perla
Libretto by Jessica Murphy Moo
Conducted by Joseph Mechavich
Directed by Matthew Ozawa

A review by Annette Skaggs

Entire contents are copyright © 2022 by Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.

What is a home? Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary has several definitions for the word such as “one’s place of residence” and “a familiar or usual setting: congenial environment.” A home is often a comfortable place, a source of refuge, and a sanctuary. Now, imagine that you are forced from your home because of prejudice and fear. 

Based upon real-life stories from families who were uprooted from their homes after the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, An American Dream shares the narrative of two families whose lives intersect because of forced removal from their respective homes. 

The opera begins with the Japanese-American Kobayashi family busily packing belongings and ridding themselves of trinkets and photographs that hold memories of their families and culture because the FBI is rounding up persons of Japanese ancestry and sending them to internment camps. When Papa Makoto (Young Bok Kim) asks his daughter Setsuko (Helen Huang) to get rid of her prized Princess doll, she sneakily hides it under the floorboards of her bedroom, with a promise to come back for it. 

At the same time, U.S. soldier Jim Crowley (Christopher Burchett) and his German-born wife Eva (Emily Albrink) have arrived in the States and take advantage of the desperation of the Kobayashi family and purchase their property for a fraction of its worth, so that they may build their American dream and create a safe space for Eve’s mother and father. Just as Mama Hiroko (Nina Yoshida Nelsen) and Setsuko are taken to a different camp than Makoto, a letter arrives for Eve, that Setsuko holds on to.

Years later America has entered the nuclear age and The Cold War, and Eve discovers Setsuko’s doll. She sends a letter to let Setsuko know of the doll’s discovery and promising to hold it for her until she can come to claim it. 

When Setsuko comes, Jim is reluctant to allow her until Eve convinces him. Yet he is confronted by the reminder of the callous way that he was able to build his American dream. Distraught by the news, Eve retrieves the doll, and Setsuko hands over the letter she had held on to for all these years. Now both families are forced to face their respective futures.

Director Matthew Ozawa is known for his commitment to cross-cultural interdisciplinary work, and almost certainly drew upon his own ancestry to help guide him in the staging of this opera. Having been commissioned by the Seattle Opera in 2015, the one-act work is still rather new and impactful, especially given current events. Keeping the set for the house open and simple was a marvelous effect for getting to know our respective families, although for the roof looking a little askew from where I was sitting. The props were just as effective, down to the mid-20th century radio used to hear the news reports, and the costumes also were nicely evocative of the period.

While not a big fan of operas that are more recitative than arias, I appreciated composer Jack Perla’s approach, with hints of prototypical American music like Aaron Copeland, and then mixed with what is referred to as Orientalist opera, especially within the prelude, expertly played by members of the Louisville Orchestra and conducted by Joseph Mechavich.

Vocally, it was a strong effort. Christopher Burchett’s Jim was a little slow in getting warmed up as it sounded a little gravely upon his first entrance but revved up wonderfully before the end. Despite not being able to understand the lyrics at times, Young Bok Kim’s very strong bass was pointed and appealing. Another impressive voice was that of Emily Albrink as Eve. The Kentucky Opera has been very lucky to have Ms. Albrink in rotation and this was certainly one of her best performances.

New to the Kentucky Opera stage were Helen Huang as Setsuko and Nina Yoshida Nelsen as Hiroko. Ms. Huang’s portrayal of the young girl who was forced to grow up rather quickly had just enough innocence, and her vocal performance was just as entertaining, with a strong top line and young voice full of potential. Ms. Nelsen as Hiroko was just as inspiring with a mezzo full of resonance without bravado.

A question is posed within the program from the Director’s Notes, “what would you take if you were forced from your home?” While the opera addresses this question and I’ve wondered that before, I am moved by the interpersonal relations between the characters and the choices that they had been both forced and chose to make.

Appropriatly, An American Dream does not send you home feeling upbeat and humming the score, but it most definitely makes one think of our collective and shared histories, and how we seem fated to repeat some of the worst of those histories. “Those who forget history are destined to repeat it”, is always cited as a caution, but what if it is actually an attempt to recognize the inevitability of such inhumanity?

Congratulations to the Kentucky Opera for your season and I look forward to celebrating your 70th!

Bravi Tutti

An American Dream

April 9-11, 2022

Kentucky Opera
The Brown Theatre
501 West Broadway
Louisville, KY 40202

Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.