An American Dream tackles Japanese-American internment during WWII | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

An American Dream tackles Japanese-American internment during WWII 

Lyric Opera’s outreach arm presents a contemporary chamber opera that grew out of two true stories.

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click to enlarge Nina Yoshida Nelsen, So Young Park, director Matthew Ozawa, and Ao Li in rehearsal for Lyric Unlimited's An American Dream.

Nina Yoshida Nelsen, So Young Park, director Matthew Ozawa, and Ao Li in rehearsal for Lyric Unlimited's An American Dream.

Lyric Opera of Chicago

This is what the bad guys did in WWII: rounded up entire families of innocent citizens on the basis of inherited group identity, tore them from their homes, businesses, schools, and jobs, and sent them to concentration camps.

This is what the good guys did in WWII: rounded up entire families of innocent citizens on the basis of inherited group identity, tore them from their homes, businesses, schools, and jobs, and sent them to concentration camps.

The internment camps where America imprisoned about 120,000 people of Japanese lineage, the majority of them U.S. citizens, didn’t include programmed genocide; the situations faced by the victims of these "relocations" in Europe and America were not equivalent. But the parallels, as far as they went, are chilling.

An American Dream, a contemporary chamber opera presented by Lyric Unlimited, the outreach arm of Lyric Opera, in two public performances this weekend at the Harris Theater, is an exploration of the internment’s (and the war’s) impact on two families. One is a pair of American citizens of Japanese ancestry and their young daughter, Setsuko; the other is an American veteran of WWI and his German/Jewish wife. The story’s  mostly set in the West Coast home that the first family sells under duress to the second.

The opera, with music by genre-blending composer Jack Perla, and libretto by Jessica Murphy Moo, was commissioned by Seattle Opera, where it was first performed in 2015. (The cast here includes So Young Park as Setsuko; Nina Yoshida Nelsen and Ao Li as her parents; and Christopher Magiera and Catherine Martin as the buyers of their home; Daniela Candillari will conduct.) It largely grew out of two true stories, elicited by this question put to Seattle-area residents: "If you had to leave your home with no warning, what one item would you take with you?"

Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941; immediately after that—like Setsuko's father in the opera—5,500 men of Japanese ancestry were rounded up by the government and sent to prisons. Two months later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that resulted in the forced evacuation of all West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry and their resettlement in one of ten "relocation" camps further inland. 

That history has resonance for the opera’s director, Matthew Ozawa. A Chicagoan for most of the last decade, and a former Lyric staffer, Ozawa recently moved to Ann Arbor where he’s a University of Michigan professor. He grew up in California, where, during WWII, his grandparents had been forced from their Los Angeles home to Heart Mountain, a relocation camp in Wyoming.

"I'm fourth-generation Japanese-American," Ozawa said in an interview last week. "My father was born in the Heart Mountain camp. His family had to sell or give away belongings; they could only take what they could carry, and they didn’t know how long they would be in these camps. The camps were wooden barracks, in remote locations, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. The conditions were harsh. My father's sister died there of an illness. He was a miracle child, born prematurely, who survived."

Upon the family's release at the end of the war, Ozawa said, "They returned to Los Angeles, having lost everything that they had. In growing up, that part of the family history was never talked about."

"My father, growing up, was taught to be as assimilated as possible, as American as possible. They tried to distance themselves as far as possible from Japanese culture."

But, the director says, he and his two siblings each inherited one of three objects that remained from the family’s time at Heart Mountain: a set of treasured silverware, a plate from Japan, and a wood block carving, made in the camp.  v

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