SANTA BARBARA — Opera Santa Barbara’s exploration of contemporary American dramas continues in 2023 with the California premiere of “An American Dream” by Jack Perla and Jessica Murphy Moo on Saturday, Feb. 18, at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St.
Set in the Pacific Northwest during World War II, “An American Dream” explores the lives of two women: a Japanese American forcibly removed from her home and a German Jewish immigrant preoccupied with those she left in Germany. In its Seattle Opera 2015 premiere, it was called “a heart-wrenching opera … eloquent and moving” by The Seattle Times.
As composer Perla states on his website, “‘An American Dream’ began as a community storytelling project asking the question: ‘If you had to leave your home today and couldn’t return, what would you take with you, and why is that object – that connection to your past – so important?’ What evolved from this inquiry was a tale based on the personal experiences of several Puget Sound residents.
“As the opera begins we see a Japanese American family burning their precious belongings before they are incarcerated during World War II. The daughter, Setsuko, hides her beloved Hinamatsuri doll before they are forced to leave their home. Newlyweds Jim and Eva move into the home.
“Eva, a German Jewish immigrant preoccupied by her family’s situation in Germany, doesn’t know the circumstances by which her Irish Catholic husband acquired the home. She slowly discovers the truth – about the family in whose house she moved, and the fate of her own.”
“An immigrant myself, I first learned about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II when I read David Guterson’s ‘Snow Falling on Cedars,’” said Opera Santa Barbara Artistic and General Director Kostis Protopapas. “Art has a powerful way to illustrate history and cast light into even the darkest corners of the human experience.
“I saw ‘An American Dream’ in Seattle in 2017, and was won over by the sincerity, empathy, and tenderness with which it tells a very difficult story. It’s a powerful piece of music theater that I have wanted to produce ever since.”
In the role of Hiroko Kobayashi, the Japanese American mother, Opera Santa Barbara proudly welcomes back Santa Barbara-born mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen. She last bowed with the company in its double bill of “El amor brujo/Il tabarro” in November 2021. She created the role of Hiroko in the 2015 world premiere and has sung in nearly all subsequent productions. She is perhaps best known for her countless performances of Suzuki in “Madama Butterfly” with opera companies throughout North America and Europe, and for creating roles in seven world premieres.
In recent years Yoshida Nelsen has played a leading role as an advocate for equity in the arts. She serves as president and co-founder of the Asian Opera Alliance and as artistic advisor at Boston Lyric Opera.
“Bringing ‘An American Dream’ home to Santa Barbara is an incredible honor for me,” said Yoshida Nelsen. “The aria I sing in the opera was written specifically for me after the librettist interviewed my grandma about her experiences being incarcerated during World War II. Not only is this opera a privilege for me to share musically, but more importantly, it feels like it is my responsibility to tell Japanese American history that is not often taught in schools. The opportunity to share this story with my community is extremely powerful and poignant to me.”
Opera Santa Barbara’s new production of “An American Dream” is directed by Richard Gammon in his company debut. He has previously directed two other productions of the piece, with set and projection design by Yuki Izumihara (“Semele” and “Tosca,” 2022).
In addition to Yoshida Nelsen, the cast will feature Janet Szepei Todd and Paul Chwe MinChul An portraying the other two members of the Kobayashi family in their OSB debuts, and Audrey Babcock (“The Crucible,” 2019 and “Carmen in your car,” 2020) and Ben Lowe (“Il tabarro,” 2021 and “Tosca,” 2022) returning as Eva and Jim.
Houston-based conductor Eiki Isomura will conduct the 15-member ensemble from the Opera Santa Barbara Orchestra.
Originally only one performance had been scheduled, but the company decided to add a second performance in response to strong ticket demand and regional interest.
“We are gratified and encouraged by the strong interest the public is showing to the California premiere of this important work and by the recognition of this project by the National Endowment for the Arts. We want to make it available for as many members of our community as possible to experience,” said Protopapas.
In addition to the public performances, a school matinee performance will be offered on Feb. 16 at 10 a.m. Teachers interested in bringing groups are asked to contact email@example.com.
Coinciding with the performances, Opera Santa Barbara will host a panel discussion titled “An Introduction to the Opera ‘An American Dream’ and a Community Conversation Centering on Japanese American Incarceration during WWII” at the Santa Barbara Public Library’s Faulkner Gallery on Saturday, Feb. 4, at 2 p.m. In partnership with The Japanese American Citizens League and the Santa Barbara-Toba Sister City Organization, this conversation hopes to shed more light on the history surrounding the opera through the words of historians and survivors.
The panel, hosted by Yoshida Nelsen, will feature Dr. Paul Mori from Westmont College and Hideko Malis and Roke Fukumura, both incarceration survivors. This event is free and open to the public.
“An American Dream” is sponsored by The Mosher Foundation and supported by a 2023 Grants for Arts Projects award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
As a premier provider of professional music theater for California’s Central Coast since 1994, Opera Santa Barbara has staged more than 80 productions of opera favorites, lesser-known classics, and contemporary American works featuring nationally recognized performers as well as local artists and craftspeople.
Beyond offering mainstage productions, the company develops the talent of emerging singing actors; educates children in the art and meaning of music theater; and provides free educational and musical programs to the broader Santa Barbara region.
For more information, call (805) 898-3890 or visit www.operasb.org.