The Song Poet: An Opera Made In Minnesota
This March, the Minnesota Opera, in collaboration with Theater Mu, brought the world premiere of The Song Poet to its newly opened Luminary Arts Center in the North Loop of Minneapolis. Reception has been incredibly positive, and it is easy to see why. The almost entirely Asian cast defies the operatic norm, the libretto and music are both written by women (Kao Kalia Yang and Jocelyn Hagen respectively), the music is unique for the genre, the staging includes stunning interpretive dance vignettes, and the writing never lets the heavy nature of the content get in the way of the beauty and whimsy of the storytelling. In short: it’s a breath of fresh air.
The Song Poet follows the journey of librettist Kao Kalia Yang’s father, Bee (Museop Kim), from his boyhood through the joys and difficulties that bring him to an exhausted adulthood. As the title suggests, Bee considers himself a “song poet” and everywhere that he goes: from the beautiful green hills of war-torn Laos to a Thai refugee camp to a new life in Minnesota and back to Laos, a literal chorus follows him. Sometimes this chorus is dressed as mountains or clouds and sometimes they are machines, but always they give voice to the song Bee finds in his every surrounding.
The Luminary Arts Center is a small venue, and, in many ways, it is the perfect venue for this kind of show. The stone and brick of the exposed wall behind the stage accentuates the green cut outs of Laotian mountains, which look like they were pulled directly from the pages of a children’s book. Set design (Mina Kinukawa) is minimal and effective. The Minnesota home the Yang family moves into is barely the suggestion of a house: a neat square of beams topped with a triangle, the suggestion of a door and a window carved out by three more beams inside the overall square. Only once the girls are grown up do the sets begin to fill out with colorful iMac G3s and fully set banquet tables.
This is an emotionally fraught story. Bee’s father dies when he is two, his friend dies when Bee is still just a boy, and Bee has to navigate difficulties familiar to many refugees: realizing it is unsafe to stay in his beloved home country, trying to make a life in a refugee camp, and eventually navigating a new home country where he and his family are consistently treated poorly by almost everyone: the welfare man, a woman in a grocery store, an employer– I am sure the list could have gone on.
And yet amid all of this, The Song Poet relishes in moments of humor and whimsy. The audience I was a part of especially liked the Minnesota-specific jokes in the second act. Chue’s (Corissa Bussian) dream about getting a washing machine is proof that even practical dreams deserve arias expressed in sparkling vibrato. The simultaneously heart-rending and ridiculous conversation between Bee and the dogs he befriended in the refugee camp is hilarious and silly and left more than one audience member wiping their eyes when Bee finally leaves the two dogs behind.
The Song Poet is also unique in that it incorporates a significant amount of interpretive dance. One of the most impactful moments was a river crossing in which dancers struggle to make their way through two pieces of flowing fabric, juggling possessions and watching helplessly as their loved ones attempt their own crossings. Similarly, the brutality and monotony of factory work is told through a mechanized, percussive dance in the second act and Cheng Xiong and Elliana Vesely briefly embody Bee and Chue in a dance duet that summarized the love story that is central to The Song Poet.
I am so happy to see Minnesota Opera exploring stories like this one. This is a beautiful, innovative piece of opera that is a great representation of Minnesota theater at its best. Minnesota Opera collaborated with several local bookstores to bring copies of Kao Kalia Yang’s books to theater-goers and there were lotus seed cookies for sale at intermission. It was a thoughtful production with a diverse, representative cast and crew. I look forward to more of the same and similar in coming seasons.