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.
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.