Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent review of Feast
The title character refers to Kalia's father Bee Yang, whom we meet as a Hmong youth, hunting and fishing, searching for his missing father, and courting his future wife Chue Moua in a traditional Hmong ball-toss at the New Year's festival. He tells her he is called "a thinker and a feeler"–a song poet. After American forces withdraw from the region in 1975, Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese forces seek genocidal retribution on the Hmong for their wartime collaboration with the United States. Bee and the other men hide in the jungle until they are able to rescue the women and children being held captive. The group makes its way through the jungle and across the treacherous Mekong River to a refugee camp in Thailand where, in 1980, Kalia is born.
After six years enduring the harsh camp conditions, the family immigrates to the United States. The first act of The Song Poet ends as Bee, about to board the airplane bound for America, pauses and takes a long, sorrowful look back at the contours and colors of Southeast Asia, wondering if he will ever again see the world as he has known it. The first act is a fluid, unfolding story of love for a place, culture and family.
The second act opens with the family–Bee Yang, Chue Moua and daughters Daub and Kalia–in St. Paul, Minnesota. Scenes now seem to leapfrog through stages of their adaptation to American life. They declaim the shockingly cold weather, Chue vents her frustration over not knowing English. Bee is frustrated by the loss of heart to sing as he did in their homeland, juxtaposed against their daughters singing the all-American "This Land Is Your Land," which they learned at school. We next see Bee miserably working in a dehumanizing factory where all that matters is speed and output. He endures harassment and illegal labor practices in order to give his children a better life. This scene is well conceived–particularly the factory machines given voice by members of the Minnesota Opera Chorus–but feel less specific to the Hmong experience and generalizable to the stories of all poor immigrants forced throughout our history to accept the least desirable, most dangerous jobs.
Up to this point, the score and libretto, production, and performances are sublime. But now the opera seems to begin a race through the rest of their journey. Abruptly, the next scene jumps to Dawb and Kalia as young women–Dawb now an attorney and Kalia an aspiring writer–and the musical selection "Sisters are life partners too" is not up to the caliber of all that precedes it. We jump again, this time to the Minnesota Book Awards where Kao Kalia Yang receives the creative non-fiction award for her first book, "The Latehomecomer." There is no singing in the scene at all and barely any speaking, just an announcement as the award is bestowed and Kalia, huddling with her family, all looking proud. What a missed opportunity for Bee Yang to sing about what it means to him to have his daughter so highly recognized in their new land, and for a work that is the story of his family's struggle and perseverance, and for Kalia to sing about what it means to her to bestow this gift and this honor on her family. What could be a powerful summation of the family saga is curiously unmarked.
In the last narrative leap the family is back in Laos for the first time since their unnerving departure. The lush landscape provokes memories for the elders but is known to their children only through stories and songs. They acknowledge the long road travelled from this place to their drastically different lives halfway around the Earth. The opera ends with a nod to how they have managed to find their way from the old to a new life, but without giving voice to the pain they suffered to reach this happy end. After such intense emotion, especially through its first act, The Song Poet finishes on a low key, with a gentle sense of wistfulness for their past, gratitude for their present, and hope for their future.
Kao Kalia Yang adapted her book to form The Song Poet's libretto and Jocelyn Hagen composed a gorgeous score to accompany those words. The soaring melodies use only Western instrumentations yet create music that carries the tones of Southeast Asia, with the harp and xylophones making significant contributions. It is beautifully played by fourteen members of the Minnesota Opera Orchestra, seen on stage, vibrantly conducted by Tiffany Chang. As with the libretto, the most moving elements are in the first act, taking time to bring depth and color to the narrative. A scene in which Bee Yang bids farewell to his two pet dogs offers surprisingly potent insight into the man, but every scene has beautifully realized music that conveys feeling, character and setting.
The cast perform solidly throughout. Museop Kim is particularly powerful as Bee Yang, his strong voice bringing emotional heft to his character. Corissa Bussian is a good match for him as Bee's wife Chue Moua, and her soprano blends well with Kim's baritone during several duets. Laura Sanders is winning and brings her clear soprano to the roles of Joua Thao (Chue Moua's mother) and the adult Kao Kalia Yang. Hai-ting Chinn's mezzo-soprano conveys warmth and confidence as adult Dawb Thao and as Youa Lee. Haozhen Wen and Xi Yuan are comically effective singing the roles of Lion Dog and Jackie Chan Dog, respectively. The twelve-member chorus, directed by Celeste Marie Johnson, raise their voices together beautifully, whether during a choral selection or backing one of the principal performers.
Director Rick Shiomi moves the story from scene to scene with fluidity throughout the first act, staging scenes such as the ball-toss courtship activity and the arrival of enemy soldiers in the village with nuance and specificity, giving them a feeling of veracity. Penelope Freeh brings lovely choreography to the production. There are two especially stunning dance sequences, one conveying the deepening love between Bee Yang and Cue Moua, the other as the Hmong refugees struggle to cross the Mekong River, bolts of wavering cloth creating the illusion of dangerous currents. Featured dancers Elliana Vesely and Cheng Xiong are spellbinding.
The Song Poet has been given a beautiful physical production, with set designer Mina Kinukawa's stylized mountain construction standing before a sky painted as if in perennial sunrise creating the Hmong homeland. Simple portable elements are moved in and out to suggest Minnesota settings, but the homeland always looms over the characters. Khamphian Vang has designed elegant traditional costumes worn until the arrival at the refugee camp, where they switch to cheap-looking attire as those glad to receive cast-offs will wear and, in the final scenes, well-fitting clothes, modest but with an appearance of quality. Rachel Brees' sound design brings sounds as disparate as tropical birds and fighter planes to the stage, while Karin Olson's lighting creates changes in focus and mood.
Most of the lyrics are sung in English, but both English and Hmong words appear on projected supertitles. Occasionally, the Hmong text is sung, having a dramatic effect when it is. There is more spoken text in The Song Poet than typical in opera, again, more noticeable in the second act.
It should be noted that The Song Poet is being presented at Luminary Arts, which is the former Lab Theatre in the North Loop district of Minneapolis. Minnesota Opera has assumed ownership of this space, upgraded its lobby and public amenities, and will use it as a second performance space for smaller scale productions than they mount at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts.
During the entire first act of The Song Poet, I was beaming with the elation of encountering an amazing new opera, a beautifully wrought work that melded cultural and historic specificity, human drama and sublime artistry. My exuberance for the piece diminished through the second act, so that by its conclusion I had the sense of abundant riches, but also disappointments. It is strongest in its presentation of the song poet's native life, culture, and his forced separation from that life, slighter in depicting his life in America and the accommodations he made to give his children a better life. Still, the first act sets a very high bar, and as a whole, The Song Poet is a powerful and moving story, presented with enormous commitment to the history, culture, and art of its honorable subject.
The Song Poet runs through March 26, 2023, presented by Minnesota Opera at the Luminary Arts Center, 700 North First Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $29 - $287. Youth tickets (age 20 and below) available at Patron Services, $20. Tickets for all performances are currently sold out. For tickets and information, please call 612-333-6699 or visit www.mnopera.org.
Music: Jocelyn Hagen; Libretto: Kao Kalia Yang, based on her book The Song Poet, additional Hmong lyrics by Bee Yang; Conductor: Tiffany Chang; Stage Director: Rick Shiomi; Choreographer: Penelope Freeh; Scenic Design: Mina Kinukawa; Costume Design: Khamphian Vang; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Rachel Brees; Wig, Hair and Make-Up Design: Emma Gustafson; Intimacy Director: Alessandra Bongiardina; Head of Music and Assistant Conductor: Mario Antonio Marra; Principal Coach and Chorus Director: Celeste Marie Johnson; Répétiteur: Erica Guo; Hmong Diction Coach: Lee Pao Xiong; Assistant Stage Director: Margaret Jumonville; Production Stage Manager: Patricia Garvey.
Cast: Corissa Bussian (Chue Moua), Hai-Ting Chinn (Youa Lee/Dawb Yang), Charles H. Eaton (Supervisor), Museop Kim (Bee Yang), Claire Luoxi Kruger *(Young Dawb), Audrey Mojica *(Young Dawb), Mina Moua *(Young Kalia), Nathan Romportl (Hue Yang), Laura Sanders (Joua Thao/Kalia Yang), Huiyin Tan (Young Bee Lee), Lavender Vy Truong * (Young Kalia), Haozhen Wen (Lion Dog), Xi Yuan (Jackie Chan Dog). *Alternating performances