Review: Naomi’s Road (Tapestry Opera)

Tapestry Opera presents a timely tale of racial internment on stage in Toronto

Tapestry Opera’s production of Naomi’s Road at St. David’s Anglican Church is moving, and eerily timely. The opera is based on a book by Joy Kogawa and tells the story of a family torn apart by the internment of Japanese-Canadians during WWII from the perspective of the family’s youngest member, a little girl named Naomi. Written about ten years ago, the work was developed for children and has toured schools in British Columbia, to great critical acclaim. This is the first time the opera has been performed in Toronto. 

The internment of people of Japanese descent during the Second World War is one of the most tragic stains on 20th Century North American history, and one that is rarely talked about. It is not on the standard history curriculum at most high schools. At my high school, we had the option to pick it as an independent study topic. I was the only person who chose this option, and there was no in-class teaching on the subject. Most Canadians do not know about the extent of the atrocity, or that the whole tragic affair happened at all.

The family in the opera is first separated from the mother because she is in Japan caring for a sick relative when the war breaks out. They are then separated from the father, because men are sent to a different camp than women and children. Their home in Vancouver is seized by the government, and they are shuffled around with little control over their destiny.

I had a very strong emotional reaction to this work, and cried at the end. Suffice it to say, the end of the war does not magically put the pieces of their lives back together. At a time when a Muslim registry is being casually bandied about, and in recent news a Trump surrogate has described the internment of Japanese-Americans as a “precedent” for this plan, the tears flowed all the more freely.

The libretto by Ann Hodges and score by Ramona Luengen interpret the story with passion, beauty, and sensitivity. The opera is short, about an hour long, which makes sense given that it was written for children. Although brief, the storytelling was sophisticated and it was easy to care about the characters. The music eloquently blended jagged, jarring rhythms and melodies with fluid, lyrical passages, deftly using semiotics to show us that we can find moments of beauty amidst unimaginable pain.

This production of Naomi’s Road was originally conceived and directed by Ann Hodges, with sets and costumes designed by Christine Reimer and built by Vancouver Opera. Michael Hidetoshi Mori is the director for the Toronto revival of the original productionFor more information, please visit: https://tapestryopera.com/naomis-road/. Mori is establishing himself as an innovation leader in the opera world, and this production is another success. The production is being mounted in St. David’s Church because the venue has historical significance for the Japanese-Canadian community in Toronto, and Kogawa personally. The utilization of a space that is not specifically for theatre posed certain challenges. The production team built a set for this production that will be available for future theatrical events at the venue, however the stage has no wings. Scene changes to transition from the home, to the train, to the internment camp were effected by adjusting panels used as the backdrop of the stage, and nothing needed to be moved on or off stage.

Casting choices were also superb. Mezzo Soprano Erica Iris in addition to having a warm, full bodied timbre reminiscent of quality red wine, is an exceptional character actor and played three very different roles in this production. Sung Taek Chung also played multiple roles, demonstrating excellent acting chops.

Hiather Darnel-Kadonaga’s timbre is light, fresh, floral, and altogether tailor made for the role of the little girl, Naomi. Sam Chung was captivating in the role of Stephen, Naomi’s older brother. His youthful tenor voice is robust and vibrant, but what is staying with me most about his performance is the innocence and increasing pain with which he came back to the repeated line “But we’re Canadian!”.

Naomi’s Road was a wonderful night of music and drama, but given current events, so much more than that. See it while it’s here. If you are an educator, consider bringing this production to your school.

Details:

  • Naomi’s Road is playing until November 20, 2016 at St. David’s Anglican Church, (49 Donlands Avenue, Toronto, ON)
  • Show times are November 17 & 19 at 8 PM, with an additional matinee on November 20 at 2 PM
  • Ticket prices range from $25 to $35. Youth and Students pay $25.
  • Tickets are available online

Photo of Hiather Darnel-Kadonaga, Erica Iris, Sam Chung, and Sung Taek Chung by Dalia Katz