Teacher Resources for An American Dream

Welcome to Lyric Unlimited’s Teachers Resources for An American Dream. This is your all-access pass to the world of opera and your insider’s guide to Lyric’s incredible performances. Scroll down to access the following resources to help you prepare your students for your trip to Lyric:

It is our sincere hope you enjoy the performance, and we look forward to seeing you and your students at the opera!

Teacher Guide

Information and activities to help you prepare students for the performance.

Teacher Guide - Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Opera Overview

This GoogleSlides presentation covers essential information your students need to know about the opera. For best results, please view the Opera Overview full screen.

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Musical Highlights

“Every home hides a secret”
English Libretto
Sung by Eva

While setting up her new home, Eva finds Setsuko’s Hinamatsuri doll. She decides to keep it hidden and return it after the war ends.

Things to listen for:

“My dear Setsuko”
English Libretto
Sung by Makoto (Papa) and Setsuko

To comfort her mother, Setsuko acts like the letter from Eva came from her father instead. In this duet, she and her father sing together as she creates the letter on the spot.

Things to listen for:

“A house someday”
English Libretto
Sung by Hiroko (Mama)

While incarcerated, Hiroko tells Setsuko about her father, Makoto, and his desire to own a home and start a family in the United States – the “American Dream.”

Things to listen for:

“Don’t you recognize me?”
English Libretto
Sung by Setsuko

Setsuko confronts Jim Crowley about how he unfairly purchased the house from her father.

Things to listen for:

“Eva, it’s the way of war”
English Libretto
Sung by Jim

After Setsuko confronts Jim about how he forced her father to sell the house for a very low price, Eva asks Jim to explain himself. He compares the deal with wartime strategy.

Things to listen for:

Music from An American Dream is a live recording provided courtesy of Seattle Opera.

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Historical and Cultural Timeline

Learn more about this opera and events in the world at the time it was written.


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Composer and Librettist Biographies

Performances for Students - Lyric Opera of Chicago

Jack Perla, composer

Jack Perla is active in opera, jazz, chamber, and symphonic music. With his New York-based group Music Without Walls and subsequently in San Francisco, he has steadily forged a reputation for cross-fertilization of jazz and classical music.

Among his operatic commissions have been Shalimar the Clown, based on Salman Rushdie’s novel (Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, 2016); An American Dream (Seattle Opera, 2015); Jonah and the Whale (LA Opera, 2014); Opera Memphis (Mich and the Moon, 2014); San Francisco Opera Center and ODC Theater (Love/Hate, 2012, reprised by the Manhattan School of Music, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and Maryland Opera Theater); and two works for Houston Grand Opera -- River of Light (2014) and Courtside (2011).

Perla is a recipient of the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute Jazz Composers Award and has performed as a pianist at the Texaco New York Jazz Festival, Knitting Factory, Tampere Jazz Festival, Big Sur, Monterey and Pacifica Jazz Festivals, and the Millennium Festival in London. His third jazz recording, Enormous Changes, was released in 2015. Perla was artist-in-residence at ODC Theater from 2006 to 2009, and during the same period participated in American Opera Projects’ Composers and the Voice and Tapestry New Opera’s LibLab.

Composer’s Statement:

Bringing a new opera to life takes a village. Counting revisions, it sometimes takes two or three. In 2011, Sue Elliott had just taken over community engagement and educational programs at Seattle Opera when she contacted me about a commission. She’d begun an oral history collaboration between Seattle Opera and the Museum of History and Industry. About 170 participants were filmed answering the question, “If you had to leave your home with no warning, what one item would you take with you?” Sue, librettist Jessica Murphy Moo, and I agreed that several videos called naturally for dramatization and singing. Marianne Weltmann had escaped Nazi Germany and chose a book about her home town. Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, a Japanese-American who was incarcerated during World War II, chose a bottle of shells she’d collected as a girl.

Though from different cultures and countries, both women became refugees from the tides of war. Jessica based the characters of Eva and Setsuko upon their stories – a strong starting point for our work. There were many steps to the premiere, and Jessica was my constant companion. She’s one of the most thoughtful and idealistic writers I’ve worked with, and I learned a tremendous amount as we collaborated. She deepened Setsuko and Eva, developed Jim from several stories (including one told by a pilot), and wove details from the remaining tales and from historical research, into a moving libretto.

How does an Italian-American composer write an opera about a Japanese-American girl and her family during World War II? Setsuko is a young woman standing up to a middle-aged war veteran – not exactly something I’ve experienced. On the other hand, my brother suffered from epilepsy and developmental delays, and was bullied relentlessly as a boy. He was two years older than me, and though I was the second-smallest boy in my class, I often squared off against his classmates in an attempt to defend him. The powerlessness we struggled with is something I’ll never forget; it informed how I approached Setsuko’s journey.

Does working from such raw emotional lines mean glossing cultural and historical details? I don’t believe so. In most operas, everything from the profoundly personal to “I’ll answer the door” is sung. This precludes the kind of realism film can achieve. But set, lighting and costume design, and a skilled director, can clarify the emotional arc and historical detail of a piece. Merging these elements with the urgency of music and voices is, to me, the unique power of opera.

When the piece was in place, the village mobilized. Sue organized a workshop that allowed to us to run the work in its entirety with orchestra, for a small, thoughtful audience. Aidan Lang, who’d just started as Seattle Opera’s general director, attended and decided to premiere the opera as part of the 2015 subscription series. Further performances were presented in 2017.

After both productions in Seattle, attendees of Japanese ancestry greeted us warmly and thanked us for the opera.
They were moved to see their family’s experience brought to life – several said the event respected and honored their experience. In addition, Marianne Weltmann and Mary Matsuda Grunewald attended the premiere – an unforgettable honor. My wife and my daughter – eight at the time – were in the audience. My daughter had no trouble understanding that this play, as she called it, centered upon a young girl standing up to a frightening older man, while a woman helps her. Though she hadn’t yet learned the historical details, the story felt real to her.

After the premiere Norman Mineta, Secretary of Transportation under George W. Bush, joined us for a post-show Q&A. It was the summer of 2015, and he forcefully pointed up the parallels between his story and an ugly new version of it taking shape. It’s been sad and frightening to see those parallels persist and magnify. I hope this piece helps in some way.

Performances for Students - Lyric Opera of Chicago

Jessica Murphy Moo, librettist

Jessica Murphy Moo earned great acclaim for her collaboration with Jack Perla, An American Dream, at its Seattle Opera world premiere in 2015 and its reprise there two years later. Murphy Moo was recently appointed editor of Portland magazine, the award-winning publication of the University of Portland.

She is former senior communications manager for Seattle Opera, as well as an adjunct instructor teaching nonfiction writing for the University of Washington’s Professional and Continuing Education division. Murphy Moo was formerly a staff editor at The Atlantic and fiction editor at Memorious, an online literary magazine. Her fiction has appeared in The Atlantic, Image, Memorious, and Signs of Life, an anthology for Seattle-based writers. Her nonfiction has appeared in Portland magazine, Poets & Writers Magazine, ParentMap, The Tablet, Boston College Magazine, and The Atlantic Online, among other publications.

Murphy Moo was a 2016 fellow at Tapestry Opera’s Librettist Composer Laboratory Workshop and is currently working on a new libretto for an opera for young audiences. She is an alumna of the College of the Holy Cross and Emerson College. Murphy Moo has held teaching positions at Emerson College, Harvard University, Boston University, Seattle Pacific University, University of Washington, and Seattle Opera.

Librettist’s Statement:

An American Dream started as a community storytelling project in Seattle; it was about a particular time and place, though we soon learned the story had a lot to tell us today.

We started the project with a question to the public: What is your most precious belonging and why? This question led us to many amazing stories. Two held an unsettling resonance. Marianne Weltmann shared a book about her hometown in Stettin, Germany, which her family fled because of the Nazi threat. Mary Matsuda Gruenewald kept a jar of shells she had collected as a child while incarcerated in California during World War II.

These women inspired the Eva and Setsuko characters, though both the characters and the specifics of the situation are fictional. In real life, Marianne is a retired opera singer and vocal coach. Mary is a retired nurse and author. Mary’s high school recently awarded her the diploma she missed out on because she had been in prison. They both attended the premiere, and that means more to me than I can say.

The story may have started both “local” and “historical,” but there are resonances in the here and now. As we studied Executive Order 9066, which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) signed, I had to reevaluate the narrative I’d grown up with about this particular president. During the Depression FDR helped my grandfather find a job. My grandfather was struggling: he was an only child, his father had died, and he needed to support his mother. To my grandfather FDR was a hero. But heroes are people. FDR did help my grandfather find work, and FDR also signed an executive order that took rights away from American citizens and put children into detention centers. Working on the story of An American Dream complicated many narratives, and it has also made me more attentive to what is happening today. We hear a lot about Executive Orders, and we know that bigotry, hate crimes, and anti-Semitism have not gone away. It has been mere months since the devastating murders at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Working on this story connected me to organizations doing important and inspiring work. The Japanese American Citizens League, in particular, galvanizes the voices of Japanese Americans to stand up for social justice causes. The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., brought me to my knees. That organization continues to educate and fight against anti-Semitism and genocide around the world.

In addition to the women who inspired the story, this piece has connected me to performers and artists who have a direct connection to this particular time in history. They are the interpreters of these characters. Nina Yoshida Nelsen created the role of the mother character and has performed the role in every subsequent production. When Nina is performing, she is performing her great-grandmother. Nina has told me that the opera gave her an opportunity to talk with her grandmother, who was a child in the detention centers, about things that had always been left unsaid. Nina’s grandmother got to see Nina perform the role before she passed away. These performers bring these characters to life for all of you, and I am in awe of their abilities. It is because of them that I had the following exchange after opening weekend of this show.

After the last performance a woman approached me in the lobby. She said her family had been incarcerated during World War II, she had heard the stories her whole life, she knew all the facts, but seeing the story unfold onstage along with Jack’s stirring music had made her feel it for the first time. She began to cry, and we embraced. I do believe that art can connect us and make the fabric of our society stronger. Working on this piece has challenged me to take a more active role as a citizen. I have hope.

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Further Exploration

A note on terminology when discussing Japanese American incarceration from the Densho organization. For information on Densho, their mission, and additional resources related to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II click here.

Performances for Students - Lyric Opera of Chicago

Behind the Scenes

A series of articles on the production, rehearsal, and performance process that happens behind the scenes at Lyric.

Sets and Props

Tech Week

The Rehearsal Process

Costumes at Lyric

Running the Show
History of the Lyric Opera House

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