Naomi's Road: Pulls the heart in all the right places and directions – Vancouver Opera's first Opera in the Schools Commission exceeds itself

Naomi's Road: Pulls the heart in all the right places and directions

Vancouver Opera's first Opera in the Schools Commission is superb!

children are left in the care of an aunt, when their father is sent
away from them, after their mother leaves the country to look after her
sick grandmother.  And the “holiday” they are told they have just
boarded a train for is actually going to be a re-location camp for the
next 3 years of their life.  They will be called “enemy aliens,”
called racial slurs, and they may never see their real home

This is all
great stuff for school children to learn about bullying, Canadian
history, the importance of family, and how to make friends.  Oh…
and it has been turned into an opera.

Vancouver Opera has turned to the children's version of the award winning novel Obasan by Joy Kogawa for it's second-ever original commission, designed for their Vancouver Opera in Schools program
Naomi's Road revolves around the upheaval of a 9 year old girl's life,
as she and her older brother are removed from their home in Vancouver,
and sent to a re-location camp in Slocan, located in BC's Interior.

Limited by a
45-minute time frame, the creative team of composer Ramona Leungen with
librettist Ann Hodges were challenged to bring alive a dark time in
Canada's history, but make it palatable and relatable for 21st century
school children.  They have succeeded in spades!  Naomi's
Road conveys the story without oversimplifying it.  The music is
acessible and emotional, with soaring melodies and lovely ensemble work.

I attended the
Saturday afternoon performance following the previous evening's World
Premiere.  A question period followed the short but lively
performance during which adults in the audience wanted the opera
extended by an hour, and children wanted to know how the actors could
change costumes so fast playing multiple roles.

Young soprano
Jessica Cheung stands out.  Her projection portraying a 9 year old
is amazing.  She is completely believable, with little nuances
that enhance her character.  When I remarked to Jessica after the
performance about “another costume change” into very chic and hip
street clothes, she remarked “So people don't think I really am a
little girl.

Composer Ramona
Luengen, says of Jessica, “We were so thrilled to find her.  She
brings so much vitality and spark.  We just wanted to keep
her.  Where else are you going to find a twenty year old that can
play a 10 year old… and sing?!?!”

Sam Chung does a
good turn as Stephen, Naomi's older brother.  He initially plays a
shy reserved child who becomes emotionally volatile as he discovers
that the “holiday” really isn't a holiday and becomes cynical about
many things related to the internment.  Sam does a good job
evolving Stephen's emotional maturity compressing three years into 45

Gina Oh and Sung
Taek Chung both take on multiple roles, playing Mother, Obasan &
Mitzi and Father, Rough Lock Bill, Trainmaster and Bully,
respectively.  They create characters complete and separate from
the roles they shed with a change of clothes.  Seeing Gina go from
loving mother to reserved aunt to childish Mitzi within 30 minutes is
remarkable.  I particularly liked how Sung played doting father,
then later reappeared as Rough Lock Bill – a First Nations Character in
Slocan who befriends the children, gives Stephen a flute and helps
demonstrate racial acceptance and unconditional friendship.

During the
Q&A, a question was asked about the role played by Joy Kogawa,
author of Naomi's Road children's book.  Luengen described
attending a reading by Kogawa 2 years ago, in the Kogawa childhood home
(now threatened by demolition – see,
which she describes as magical.  Anne Hodges said that Joy gave
them complete reign over the story and never said to take or leave
anything out, nor questioned what they did.  “She was like a
benevolent and peaceful spirit that permeated what we did, and always
seemed to be in town whenever we needed her.”

When I told
music director Leslie Uyeda that I had tears in my eyes when the
children were in the train scene, she replied, “You're the third person
who has said that… that scene is so emotionally charged, especially
when they are separated from their father.  It is so
iconographic.  It's in all the pictures,” she commented about the
photographs showing Japanese-Canadians at the train station waving to
family members being sent to different camps, and used on the cover of
the book

If this is only
the 2nd-ever commission by the Vancouver Opera (the first was 1994's
The Architect), I can only eagerly anticipate the next one, and hope
that it will be soon.  Maybe they will pick another
Vancouver-based story such as the Komagata Maru incident that affected
the South Asian community, or an issue from Chinese-Canadian history,
similar to the opera
Iron Road, that is yet to show in Vancouver.

Kudos for the
Vancouver Opera's Naomi's Road.  I foresee a long life for it,
touring BC's schools and beyond.  Glad I wasn't sitting on a
gymnasium floor for 45 minutes… but I think the kids will definitely
enjoy it!

Please sign the petition to preserve the Kogawa Homestead. Click on the white banner – this will forward you to an on-line petition.
Donations can be made in care of the Vancouver Heritage Foundation

One thought on “Naomi's Road: Pulls the heart in all the right places and directions – Vancouver Opera's first Opera in the Schools Commission exceeds itself

  1. Pingback: Naomi’s Road returns… Come see April 23 at Italian Cultural Centre | Gung HAGGIS Fat Choy

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