Tonight I saw Naomi’s Road, an opera with libretto by Ann Hodges & music composed by Ramona Luengen, based on a novel by Joy Kogawa, to open Tapestry Opera’s 2016-17 season.
Tapestry Artistic Director explained before the show’s presentation at David’s Anglican Church (a location that is supposedly full of historical significance for the Japanese Canadian community) that while this little opera has been to at least 400 communities in places such as British Columbia & Alberta, it only now comes to Ontario, and for the first time is directed by a Japanese Canadian: Mori that is.
I’m simultaneously having a whole flood of emotional responses to this unpretentious little work of roughly an hour in length. It’s less than a week since I saw Ayre presented by Against the Grain at the Ismaili Centre, yet here I am again looking at a political work and its context, the day before i see another quasi political event, namely “A Bridge to the Future: commemorating the Hungarian Revolution“. While the American election may be over, many of us are still reverberating with its implications. Naomi’s Road seems especially timely in that context, a tiny glimpse in microcosm of Canada’s treatment of Japanese Canadians in the Second World War, interned & stripped of their possessions as a consequence of the government’s invocation of the War Measures Act (a law that gives the government extraordinary powers to more or less do anything it wants no matter how disgusting). Naomi is part of a family who endure this humiliating loss of rights & property.
I understand that this adaptation was intended for a school audience. The simplicity of the idiom –wholly intelligible, largely tonal, sometimes sentimental, then abruptly turning into something of breath-taking bluntness—is like a lesson in how to write an opera. Perhaps the question I’d ask anyone writing an opera is , if you make it any more complex than this are you sure you’ll improve it? We’re in the tonal realm of a Menotti, recalling the accessible idiom of Amahl & the Night Visitors, thinking of another hour-long opera that’s a staple in churches all over North America, and –like Naomi’s Road come to think of it—a huge success because it’s easy and cheap to produce.
Tonal music is a problem child, given that composers are expected to make their music sound new and/or difficult. But there are a few refuges for career composers who prefer tonal music. One is the world of music theatre, where melody is a requirement if you expect to be a success. Film is another place where you have opportunities for feel-good music, at least if the story allows (whereas horror and suspense films are another story). And then there’s church music, a place where composers are sometimes welcomed if their style is retro as far as their use of the voice & tonality. Ramona Luengen has a lovely compositional voice, especially when she employs multiple voices. There are several stunning moments where two or more singers sing together, sometimes unaccompanied.
Hodges’ libretto & Luengen’s score lulls you in places, seemingly telling a kids’ story, the stage occupied by happy children telling a sentimental tale: that is until the plot takes a surprise turn or two. The soft and gentle harmonies that lure us in, getting us to drop our defenses, leave us vulnerable for the nastier moments in the opera. And yet it’s wonderfully educational, as we really get inside the experience. I recall hearing a professor argue that politics and art are ultimately incompatible, that as soon as something becomes didactic or preaches, it must cease to be art. And so with this opera, which never takes that movie-of-the-week tone, opting always to stay inside the narrow zone inhabited by its characters. Naomi, Stephen, their family and friends, are all simply trying to survive in their own little world. That’s the brilliance of this work.
I like the way the music gets you to open your heart to the characters and their story. It’s not rocket science, it’s opera. Mozart, Puccini and Menotti all did this at times, and so does Luengen. This is no virtuoso vehicle, but a very direct little piece that’s full of life, a great piece of theatre. Hiather Darnel-Kadonaga as Naomi and Sam Chung as Stephen were very sympathetic, while Sung Taek Chung and Erica Iris were wonderful in a whole series of other roles, especially when the four sang as an unaccompanied quartet. Stephanie Chua at the piano played and music-directed a flawless show.
I would strongly recommend that you come see this opera, running until November 20th at St David’s Anglican Church on Donlands Avenue just north of Danforth Ave, across from the Donlands Subway.