BWW Reviews: HGO's NEW ARRIVALS - A Touching and Inspiring Opera
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by David Clarke
During the month of June, Houston Grand Opera (HGO) in conjunction with Asia Society Texas produced and premiered a fantastic and newly commissioned opera New Arrivals, featuring a libretto by Catherine Filloux and music by John Glover. The inspiring chamber opera had its premiere in a semi-staged concert setting on June 16, 2012 as part of the World Refugee Day celebration at the Baker Ripley Neighborhood Center. It also had a concert performance on June 17 at Rothko Chapel and another semi-staged concert performance on June 19 at the Baker Ripley Neighborhood Center. Before ending its run in Houston, New Arrivals was beautifully performed as a fully staged opera on June 22 and June 23, 2012 at the Asia Society Texas Center.
Averaging almost one new operatic premiere a year, HGO has made it a mission of theirs to encourage and support contemporary artists and their new works. Upon hearing about Yani Rose Keo, the administration at HGO felt compelled to explore the story of her journey from Cambodia to Houston, which led to the commissioning of New Arrivals.
Yani Rose Keo is a Cambodian refugee who lives in Houston. She has made it a personal mission to assist other refugees and immigrants. She accomplishes this with a non-profit agency that she started with a refugee from Ethiopia, the Alliance for Multicultural Community Services (formally known as the Refugee Service Alliance). Yani Rose Keo started down this path of service in 1973 when she volunteered with International Aid and Assistance for Refugees because her native Cambodia was engulfed in civil war. She spent years helping refugees and those who fled from the fighting. In April 1975, the U.S. military evacuated the region, making her family and her refugees as well.
The rich and lavish score, composed by John Glover, incorporates traditional Cambodian smot, a form of Buddhist chanting, with the traditionAl Western operatic style. Both of these rigidly diverse traditions blend together gorgeously, creating an intricate and intriguing score that is easy to lose yourself to emotionally. The harmonization between instruments and human vocals makes the piece expressively visceral, moving the audience through the struggles and joys that come with losing one’s home and family but gaining a new opportunity at life.
Catherine Filloux’s libretto is exceptionally well written. It effortlessly relates Yani Rose Keo’s story to the audience, delving into the emotional and psychological torment of adversity upon the soul as exemplified by the characterization of Yani Rose Keo and the three refugees she helps during the opera. Catherine Filloux adeptly employs thematic devices to explore the human desire and need to help others, ultimately furthering humanity and leaving the audience with a craving to give back to any person or community in need.
At the performance I saw, Phoeun Srey Peou performed the smot chants, cleanly evoking the emotions of loss and trauma (stirring) and the cathartic and transformative power of letting go (stilling). In an insightful question and answer segment after the performance, Trent Walker, a Southeast Asian Buddhist music scholar, explained that stirring pieces are normally used in funerals to allow people to be moved to and experience grief, while stilling pieces are used to remind people of the power of the journey of life and to commemorate their lost ones, sending them on to their spiritual rebirth or Nirvana. These same emotions and journeys are explored as the character of Yani Rose Keo grieves the loss of Cambodia and her family then gives herself to a life of service, helping others through the same hardships she faced herself. Despite Phoeun Srey Peou singing these smot pieces in their native Khmer, her vocal expression easily conveys these complexities to a primarily English speaking audience. Moreover, Catherine Filloux’s libretto expertly conveys the thematic journeys present in smot chanting in the telling of Yani Rose Keo’s story and the stories of the other refugees as well.
Mihoko Kinoshita, making her HGO debut, adroitly captured the raw emotions in the character of Yani Rose Keo. Mihoko Kinoshita’s stunning soprano voice was consummately expressive and touching, providing the audience with a tangible, relatable, and sincerely inspiring portrayal of Yani Rose Keo.
The other members of the cast were exceptional as well. Carlton Ford’s rich baritone added great sonic depth to the music, and was wonderfully used to bring the character of John to life. Katherine Jolly, also making her HGO debut, employed tender and expressive soprano vocals to make her portrayal of Iris poignant and unforgettable. Peter Tran expertly conveyed the angst and anger of being a refugee, dynamically completing the portrait painted by John Glover and Catherine Filloux.
The scenic design and direction choices were also brilliant and inspired. The mix of freestanding chairs arranged to resemble the interior of an airplane and two wings with turbine engines that spun were fantastic suggestions to the audience’s imagination, allowing them to visualize the literal journey taken by the refugees. The use of numbered tags pasted on the walls and scattered around the floor served as visual and ever-present reminders of the sheer multitudes of the lives lost during the reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; however, when the cast used green incarnations of these tags to simulate the act of planting and growing food the cast of refugees reclaimed the atrocity to benefit a new life, which was a sincerely affecting choice.
As a whole, New Arrivals is a sensational new opera that will hopefully be performed many more times around the world, presenting a story that deserves to be told, received, and appreciated. Lastly, a highlight of the performance I attended was when the audience applauded a gracious Yani Rose Keo, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the performance as much, if not more, than all in attendance.
Poster image courtesy of Houston Grand Opera.