Last night, I attended a preview of Seattle Opera’s An American Dream, which aims to tell the story of World War II’s Japanese-American internment in opera form. The music was strong, shot through with hints of Bartok, Stravinsky, and Debussy. The cast was uniformly good. Sadly, because of the librettist’s poor storytelling decisions, An American Dream isn’t the great opera about the Japanese-American incarceration that we’ve been waiting for.
An American Dream concerns the Kobayashi family. The family patriarch owns a farm on Bainbridge Island, and because he and his family are about to be shipped off to the internment camps for the crime of being Japanese-Americans during World War 2, he ends up selling his house and farm at a fire sale price to a white couple. He and his wife and daughter are then carted off. His daughter, Setsuko, does manage to leave a treasured doll behind, concealed under floorboards.
In our next scene, the white couple is moving boxes into the house, singing about how tedious moving is. This struck me as odd. I guess I could understand going for something mildly comic to relieve the tension, but as the singing and moving-in continued, I began to wonder why, in a story about the internment, we’d abandoned the family being interned to watch white people bitch about lugging boxes. If we must have a song about the hassles of moving, why weren’t we watching the Kobayashi’s move into their new digs at Manzanar or Topaz or Granada or wherever the hell they ended up? Why didn’t we get to see them try adjust to life in the camp? Since the government separated Mr. Kobayashi from the rest of his family (an unusual move in the internment camps that An American Dream never bothers to explain), why aren’t we getting scenes of him, and his wife, trying to pry information out of the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that they’re now trapped in? Why don’t we get to see them facing the camp’s bogus tribunals or filling out the insulting loyalty questionnaires? How did our opera about the injustice of Japanese-American internment become a story about two white people squabbling over whether to give the recently discovered doll back to Setsuko after the war is over?
I’ll leave to one side the issue of why stories of injustice or atrocity have a hard time getting on stage or screen unless white people are somehow involved. Instead, I want to focus on what lousy story craft this is.
An American Dream promises to take us inside the internment camp experience. Just to get into the theater I had to pass through a registration procedure meant to mimic what Japanese-Americans faced going into the camps. (Seattle Opera’s execution is more than a little cheesy and heavy handed, but let that pass.) After this, I made my way through two floors of exhibits about the camps and camp life, including a documentary in which former inmates tell their stories. Before An American Dream starts we hear from three aging Asian Americans whose lives were impacted by the internment policy. By now, An American Dream had written a big check, and I wanted to cash it. As an audience member I was ready to be taken inside the internment experience. I was raring to having its full emotional force laid on me.
Instead, the check bounced. An American Dream tells us that tragedies happen to the Kobayashi family, but after they lose their house, all of them occur offstage. Mrs. Kobayashi dies…offstage! After the first scene, Mr. Kobayashi, who presumably had been through three years of excruciating legal trouble and separation from his wife and daughter (which presumably prevented him from comforting his wife during her final days), never gets to sing another note, though he is allowed to appear at the end of the show, looking sad. Setsuko gets the bulk of her family’s stage time, but she never sings much about her inner life, opting instead for a kind of generalized sadness, with lots of flowery language thrown in to give her an unearned sense of depth. (One of the questions Satsuko sings about is whether a house is just a place full of shadows, which sounds nice but has little to do with anything actually going on in her life.) Did Satsuko make friends inside? Did she journal her experiences? How did she keep up her studies? Did she fall in love? Did she have a tough time with the guards? An American Dream doesn’t seem to care. Maybe that’s why Seattle Opera decided to put up all those exhibits and make ticket holders participate in that silly registration procedure. If they weren’t going to put the internment experience on stage, they had to put it somewhere.
Storytellers everywhere, take note. Most of the best stories take us to places and emotions that are tough to reach. Telling those stories means selecting the point of view that can take us to them. In An American Dream‘s case, that means sticking with the characters who are to be incarcerated. They’re who we care about. They’re the ones we came to see.