THE WORLD PREMIERE OF THE SONG POET
A Q&A WITH AUTHOR AND LIBRETTIST KAO KALIA YANG, COMPOSER JOCELYN HAGEN, AND STAGE DIRECTOR RICK SHIOMI.
Next year, Project Opera, Minnesota Opera’s training program for youth singers, will present the world premiere of The Song Poet, a new opera written specifically for young singers. Based on the novel of the same name by St. Paul author Kao Kalia Yang (who has also written the libretto), The Song Poet is the touching true story of Yang’s father Bee and his undying love for his family, as they journey as refugees from the mountains of Laos to start a new life in America. The new opera will have its premiere at The Lab Theater in spring of 2021.
As we get ready for this exciting new work, the first opera that incorporates the Hmong language as well as traditional Kwv txhiaj, or Hmong song poetry, we sat down with Ms. Yang, composer Jocelyn Hagen, and Stage Director Rick Shiomi to learn about why this story is so important to tell for the Hmong community and what those outside of it can learn from this story of grace, empathy, and strength.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why adapt The Song Poet for the operatic stage?
Kao Kalia Yang: There is in my mind, no question that every culture—every people—holds the stuff of great opera: beautifully poignant stories set in tumultuous times that communicate the yearning of the human heart and the adventures we go on in order to reach our possibilities against the limits of our lives. [MN Opera Chief Learning Officer] Jamie Andrews recognized that The Song Poet holds all the elements of great opera; you have an orphan boy who grows up fatherless in a war, that boy becomes a great song poet for his people. Displaced by war, he lives his life as a refugee in the hard factories of a new world, only to cultivate in his heart and his home a child who would translate his songs into a new language so his art can live on. The adaptation of a Hmong story into opera is something the world has never seen before and in the world that we live in, so fraught with the dangers of war and its consequences, now is the time to see this happen. The question is: why not?
Rick Shiomi: It is a gut-wrenching story of the universal human aspiration for safety and belonging, and this is the Hmong story told with tremendous insight, emotional truth, and elegance by Kao Kalia Yang. This production is an opportunity for MN Opera to capture on stage this amazing story, written by an amazing writer, and share it with America.
What is the importance of storytelling in the Hmong community?
KKY: The Hmong have faced cultural genocide. Our written language was lost a long time ago. We have kept our histories, absent from the books of a bigger world, alive because of our strong oral tradition. I grew up in a community where words have had to write on memory; the stakes in storytelling are high for they carry our tales through time.
RS: Storytelling has been the community record in the Hmong communities and so the vital historical/cultural memory bank for them. The Song Poet novel and now the coming opera become instruments of recording their history and culture in our own society.
Table Read Photos (c) Mitra Sadeghpour
What is the importance of children learning stories of where their family comes from?
KKY: Every child is borne from history. In the case of the Hmong child, that history is not documented. Divorced from our origin stories, without knowing where we come from and what we are made of, it is hard to know what is possible, what we are capable of. The simple truth is that life is challenging, possible only for the survivors. Every child who survives, has survived because their ancestors have met impossible odds, and won for them the possibility of sacred life. There are many great mysteries: the mystery of love, the spark of fire in a belly that pushes a warrior to enter into the field of war, an artist into the dark unknowns of possibility, but the story of whether one is equipped to survive should not be among them. In learning the stories of where they come from, each child is gifted with the knowledge that inside of them is everything they’ve ever needed to make it—no matter what life deals.
What does it mean to you personally to see the first Hmong story told through opera?
RS: I have been fortunate to have been a part of many firsts in theater history in North America and every time that happens, I am thrilled that the light of attention and understanding has found another deserving story. The story of the Hmong is as powerful and amazing, tragic and tremendously uplifting, as any, and MN Opera should be congratulated and honored for being the first to tell their story through opera.
KKY: I’m tremendously honored and moved. I’m reminded each time I reckon with it that we are all makers of history, and it is a gift and a responsibility that must be taken seriously and handled thoughtfully. I’m delighted and inspired by this process and look eagerly to see what opera lovers and young folk, Hmong and non-Hmong, will take away from this important reminder: history is made by those who are not afraid to try something new.
Table Read Photos (c) Mitra Sadeghpour
Minnesota Opera’s mission is to change lives through opera. How do you hope The Song Poet changes the lives of the Hmong community both locally and globally and what do you hope people outside of the Hmong community learn from The Song Poet?
KKY: I hope The Song Poet will invite Hmong and other new Americans from traditions that have never been expressed operatically to engage with the form; I also hope The Song Poet will invite non-Hmong opera lovers and students to envision the myriad of stories that do not yet exist in the form and explore more deeply and diversely the ways in which we can break down the very real boundaries that hold us apart as a community. More important than both, I hope this opera will show the world what we already know to be true, what the best research studies prove time and again: that any art form that has survived across time has the ability to hold all human stories, and that the words of a Hmong song poet set to music, brought to life by young people, can reach the heart and soul of who we are and give us the strength to become better for each other.
Are there similarities between opera and Hmong song poetry?
KKY: Yes! A deep and abiding love of language, of heart, a belief in storytelling as a way of bringing people together not only to reflect and remember, but to distill the essence of life and our journey through time and space. Both opera and traditional song poetry require the strength of an incredible human voice, human breath, and the human heart. These are not art forms that anyone can do on their own; in both cases, there must be natural born talent, years of learning from the masters, and then years of performance to truly excel and be great.
How does the soundscape of the piece support the telling of this story?
Jocelyn Hagen: As I dive into the creation of this work, it becomes more and more evident that I am merely a servant to this story and the music of the Hmong people. The most important music that will be heard in this opera is the traditional Kwv txhiaj, or Hmong song poetry. This music needs to be as authentic as possible. I want the Hmong listeners of this opera to be transported back to their homeland when experiencing the opera. I want them to feel like they are home. Internalizing this style and tradition is taking up the majority of my research now, and I am committed to presenting it in the most thoughtful and sincere way. It excites me to think that these young singers will learn to sing in this traditional style.
This folk music will inform my larger musical decisions and develop into the overall soundscape for the opera. I’m studying the scales, rhythms, and cadences of Kwv txhiaj, and look forward to fusing these aspects with my own compositional voice.
Table Read Photos (c) Mitra Sadeghpour
What themes does The Song Poet speak to?
KKY: The yearning for a parent that isn’t there, love in wartime, poverty everywhere, possibilities in the places others forget to look, and art and how it saves us.
RS: I would add: surviving the terrors and ravages of war, the challenges of forced migration, and adapting to new environments, cultures, societies, etc.
Why do you think this story makes a good children’s opera?
RS: In many ways, The Song Poet is the story of two children. Bee is a child of war who has to grow up fast and make the huge decision to leave his homeland with his new family, and Kao Kalia Yang is a child who grows up watching her father drift away on a lonely raft, and sets out to recover and recognize the power of his story and his talent as a Hmong song poet. It is the vision of a wonderful artist who can see the world through the innocence of a child and also understand and depict the complications and challenges of the real world.
KKY: This opera highlights the feelings and thoughts and ideas of children. The opera does not “protect” children from war or life or death; it accepts that no matter how young or old we are, we are subject to the experiences of life in its fullness. It allows children to experience the wide breadth of the human experience. It allows their feelings to come through, their yearnings, their fears, their hunger to be understood and loved.
As we move into this new decade, why is this a vital and relevant project?
KKY: We live in a world that is continually creating more and more refugees, where borders are being re-enforced even as they prove themselves broken. The beauty about a project like this one is that it blurs boundaries; it preserves the important elements of identity and meaning. At the same time, it is unafraid of conversing with and engaging with outside traditions and technologies. This project, in many ways, is a new model for artistic survival and collaboration beyond the decade that is to come.
RS: I am always excited by the vision of artists who can light the way forward for us. Kao Kalia Yang is one such artist and her work in The Song Poet helps us all understand better the journey that millions upon millions of people are experiencing at this very moment and their stories in the coming decade will define the new world order that is emerging. Can a project be more vital and relevant than that?