Go inside this production of An American Dream with engaging articles, notes from the director, a complete plot synopsis, artist bios, and more.
A farmhouse on a Puget Sound island. American veteran Jim Crowley and Eva, his new wife, have come to buy a home. A German Jew, Eva desperately wants her parents to leave Germany, where their lives are in danger. She hopes her family will find peace and sanctuary in this place so far from the war. Meanwhile, inside the home, a Japanese American family, the Kobayashis, has heard that the FBI has been searching homes and taking away people of Japanese descent. e family burns their precious Japanese belongings and photographs of their family members in the hopes of avoiding arrest. Eva waits outside as Jim, knowing he has the upper hand, tries to get the father, Makoto Kobayashi, to sell the land for a fraction of what it is worth. e FBI arrives at the home and tells Makoto he is under arrest; the FBI found some old dynamite in the shed out back, and they say this contraband makes him a threat. Makoto has no choice but to sell the land to Jim. As the FBI agents take Makoto away, he promises to return for his teenage daughter, Setsuko.
Setsuko and her mother, Hiroko, have packed up the house. Setsuko holds her suitcase, ready to leave, when a postman delivers a letter. Setsuko sees that it is from Germany, for a woman named Eva. Angry that she is being forced to leave her home, the girl steals the letter.
A few weeks later
Jim and Eva move into their new home; they designate a room for Eva’s parents. Jim tries to keep Eva’s hopes up. Eva notices that small items have been left behind in the home: a piece of a record and a photograph. When she finds a beautiful Hinamatsuri doll hidden beneath a floorboard, Eva asks Jim about the previous owners. Jim tells her that they were “Japs,” sent to the “camps.” He tells her to throw away the doll, that it doesn’t belong in a room for her parents. Eva defies Jim’s wishes and hides the doll, promising to find its owner and return it at the war’s end.
Jim and Eva hear an announcement on the radio of Germany’s surrender. Eva writes to Setsuko, telling Setsuko she has something that belongs to her. Later that month While still incarcerated, Setsuko receives the letter. When her mother, who is gravely ill, inquires about the letter, Setsuko lies and explains that the letter is from her father, telling them to keep hope because the war is nearly done.
When Eva reads Setsuko’s response, Jim tells Eva that Setsuko is not allowed in their home. President Truman announces the dropping of the atomic bomb.
There is a knock on the door. It is Setsuko, who confronts Jim, reminding him that he coerced her family to sell their home for next to nothing. Eva asks Jim if this is true.
Jim tries to explain his actions to Eva. She leaves the room to retrieve the doll she has promised to return to Setsuko. While she is gone, Jim confronts Setsuko, and Setsuko admits to another reason for coming. She is here to return Eva’s letter. Eva returns to the room, and Setsuko gives her the letter. From the stolen letter, Eva learns of her parents’ fate, and she collapses. Setsuko must finish reading the letter for her. Jim tries to comfort Eva as Setsuko faces her future.
“If you had to leave your home today and couldn’t return, what would you take with you, and why would those connections to your past be so important?”
– Jack Perla, composer of An American Dream
Jack Perla and Jessica Murphy Moo’s poetic and gripping opera, An American Dream, links directly to my family heritage. I am one of this country’s few Asian American directors, and the process of preparing for this project has been an unusual one for me: digging up family photos, long chats with my father, looking at objects passed down from generation to generation.
Like 120,000 other Japanese Americans, allowed to take only what they could carry, my family was forcibly removed from their home in Los Angeles and sent to an incarceration camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming. It was in this prison – compounds of barracks patrolled by armed guards and surrounded by barbed wire fences – that my father was born. His siblings, sadly, died in the camp, and by the time I was born, much of my family’s Japanese culture, language and religion had been silenced in the hope that I would be a truly assimilated “American.”
For much of my upbringing I knew very little about my Japanese American heritage. I saw very few Japanese objects and pictures, and was told very little about the loss, the pain, and the struggles my family endured. Wiping the dust off my family history in order to investigate the opera’s themes of home and heritage was akin to unearthing a hidden secret. As for Setsuko and Eva in the opera, there was a haunting quality in realizing the magnetic pull of my family as found in their pictures, letters, and objects. is subtle internal feeling, I found, was so poignantly mirrored in Perla’s score.
I’ve realized that if I were forced to leave my home today, I would take as much of my family heritage with me as possible, because that history and culture cannot be silenced. What is so shocking is that what my family and so many others during World War II endured still occurs today. My connections to my past where those who were defined as “other” were “removed,” become contemporary reminders, so that we hopefully learn from our past and present to shape a new future.
— Matthew Ozawa