For a long time, I have thought of the incarceration experience as full of possibilities for drama, fiction and other forms of creative expression. So much happened in the camps. Those were times that tried men’s (and women’s) souls, so to speak, and all were punished for the accident of their ancestry.
Circumstances forced hard choices on the inmates, and some of it was truly crazy-making.
I occasionally think that I would like to write a novel, but I don’t think I have the chops to tackle fiction. And so I admire all who try to write a play or story, create a piece of art like a painting, dance, poem, song, movie, or anything that attempts to express some aspect of that history. The thing that I did was to participate in making a documentary.
On Jan. 29, I saw “Both Eyes Open” at the University of California, Berkeley. This is a new chamber opera with music by Max Duykers and libretto by Philip Kan Gotanda.
Gotanda is a UC Berkeley professor, but is well known for his numerous plays, most concerned with Asian American themes, some with the incarceration as their subject.
Sponsored by the Center for Japanese Studies, the departments of Music, Theatre, Dance & Performance Studies and First Look Sonoma, the piece was directed by Melissa Weaver.
The handout described the piece in this way: “‘Both Eyes Open’ explores the impact of the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans on the internal life of one young man returning home after three years of imprisonment. Through dream, memory and hallucination, Jinzo Matsumoto tries to make sense of all that has happened to his life.”
Jinzo has lost everything of importance: his farm, his wife and son in childbirth, his birthright as a citizen and has returned to what was his former farm to look at it once more before committing suicide. He digs up a daruma doll, buried by his wife before being incarcerated. The notes continue to describe the piece: “The story is told in a hallucinatory, consciously irreverent mix of song, movement and stark narration.”
What was presented was a 30-minute excerpt of the opera, the opening part of this phantasmagoric, dreamy depiction of Jinzo’s mental state with flashbacks from his past. A ghost and a guardian spirit in the form of a daruma come to save him from his decision to end it all. In this production, music was provided with a piano (Marja Mutru) and a Marimba Lumina, a xylophone-like construction (Joel Davel) and choreography by Claudine Naganuma. A video presentation with supertitles also added music and visual imagery in the background.
In some opening remarks and with added discussion after the performance, the writer and composer explained how this piece came to be. Their meeting came about through the friendship of Gotanda and John Duykers, the father of the composer of this opera. John Duykers also happens to be a distinguished tenor. They decided to collaborate on this piece and have worked on it for around five years, with Duykers living in New York and Gotanda in Berkeley. John Duykers sings the role of Charlie Daruma, the doll come to life, Kalean Ung is the ghost, Catherine, who was Jinzo’s wife. Hesed Kim plays Jinzo.
One can hardly comment on seeing just a piece of the whole, but the part that was performed was intriguing and absorbing. I am not in a position to judge modern music, but this composition seemed to fit the roiling darkness that is overcoming Jinzo, and, as the program notes say, the “existential conflicts that incarcerated Japanese Americans faced after returning home from the camps.” My big disappointment was that Jinzo was not a singing role. Being an opera meant, for me, that everybody would sing, and it seemed to me that Jinzo could have been given the opportunity to pour his heart out in song and music, to convey his emotions more intensely vocally.
The program notes go on to say that there will be two endings to this story. In the first, Jinzo lays down on some railroad tracks and is run over by a train, and in the other, Charlie Daruma pulls him away in time and saves his life. “The audience must decide which story line is ‘true.’” Now this is a disturbing and thought provoking way to end the opera.
Perhaps many Japanese Americans would not be interested in a tale of suicide even though this work was inspired by a photo of a young man, an inmate in one of the camps who actually did kill himself this way. There are other stories of suicide and madness in the camps, indications of the stress and despair that many felt.
I would like to see a complete production of “Both Eyes Open.” It is an imaginative and ambitious project, another addition to the growing body of work dealing with the camps and the aftermath.
Chizu Omori, of Oakland, is co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.