Katy Curtis, Co-Director of the Only What We Can Carry Project and Outreach Director for Bainbridge Island Historical Museum, and Jon Garfunkel, OWWCC founder and director, worked with representatives of the Seattle Opera over the summer to assist them in preparing for their world premiere production of An American Dream. A dress rehearsal was performed at Bainbridge Performing Arts, followed by the official production at McCaw Hall in Seattle, August 21 and 23, 2015.
The opera is set in the years 1942 through 1945 on a Puget Sound island. The fictional story revolves around the World War II experiences of two women – one, a German Jew married to an American veteran, and the other, a Japanese American woman whose family is impacted by the resulting Internment.
EduCulture was involved in pre-production research conducted by Seattle Opera staff, directing tours of Suyematsu Farm, providing historic information and important community-based context, as well as helping coordinate local elders to serve on a panel on stage just prior to the production. EduCulture also helped the group curate an extensive pre-performance exhibit to better tell the history and to enhance the experience of the opera.
Nick Malinowski, Community Programs Manager for Seattle Opera, had this to say about EduCulture’s role in their preparation for the production:
“EduCulture was an invaluable resource as we prepared our production of An American Dream. Jon Garfunkel has a wealth of information and historical knowledge, and he answered every question we had about the Japanese American exclusion and farm life in the 1940s – everything from the use of farm implements to the storage of dynamite. EduCulture also allowed the director of An American Dream, Peter Kazaras, the opportunity to experience firsthand what a working berry farm would have looked and felt like in the 1940s.”
Bainbridge Islanders Lilly Kitamoto Kodama, Kay Sakai Nakao, and Felix Narte, Jr. served as speakers on a panel on stage just prior to the performance. Felix, who had not yet been born in 1942 but grew up on the Island, spoke about his family’s experience during the war. Kay, who was 22 in 1942, spoke about life before the war. And Lilly shared her perspective of the time after the war.
About the experience, Lilly says:
“The education department of Seattle Opera worked very hard to present not only a new opera about our incarceration, but also the lobbies were filled with exhibits and films, and a mock-up of a Puyallup Fairgrounds horse stall, converted into “living space” for Seattle and Alaska Nikkei. Once we were on stage and each had a short time to speak, I talked about the discrimination I experienced after the war ended. Everyone involved with the production made us feel comfortable. I believe this story reached a different audience and will help in preventing this from recurring. The opera was my first, and the music was wonderful.”
“It was truly a very memorable experience,” says Kay Nakao. “I thought the exhibits were very educational and powerful. I never dreamt that going on 96, I would be part of such an important event. On the panel, I spoke mostly about my Dad, who went into Seattle after the war broke out and sold his life insurance for War Bonds. This, even though he had six kids! He was really grateful to be an American – he was American, heart and soul.”
“Bainbridge Island elders and the island’s experience was a strong influence on the Seattle Opera production,” says Jon Garfunkel. “We were happy to serve as one of their community partners in this project.”
An American Dream project was part of the Seattle Opera’s community engagement project called Belonging(s). Seattle Opera asked the public to respond to the questions: “If you had to leave your home today and couldn’t return, what would you want to take with you? Why is that object, memory, or connection to your past so important?”