“I don’t know of a single major American opera that has set Vietnamese to music,” says Daron Aric Hagen, composer of new opera “Amelia.” His observation was echoed by the “Amelia” singers and audience as well.
“Amelia” addresses the consequences of the Vietnam War. It had its world premiere with the Seattle Opera on May 8 and will run through May 22. Hagen received the commission to write the opera eight years ago, but says he has intended to write an opera about the American experience in Vietnam since he was a teenager.
“I am a child of the ‘60s,” explains Hagen, “too young to serve but old enough to march against the Vietnam War with my big brothers in Madison, Wis. …The Vietnam experience shaped me as it did my brothers.”
When he began writing the music score for “Amelia,” Hagen wasn’t sure Vietnam would be prominent in the story. The opera is based on Gardner McFall’s book “The Pilot’s Daughter,” containing 39 poems about the loss of her father in the Vietnam War and how that experience shaped her life.
The opera follows the character Amelia, who is pregnant with her first child, as she struggles for a sense of closure concerning her father’s death in the war. Ultimately, the one scene that takes place outside the U.S. in a small Vietnamese village became the largest and most striking scene in the opera.
“I have come to learn through the process of incorporating Vietnam into this story, that it is the heart of this story,” Hagen says, “because Amelia has spent—as so many Americans have–their adult lives coming to terms with incomplete mourning of service.”
Making Amelia authentic
Once Hagen realized the significant role the Vietnamese culture and language would play in “Amelia,” his principal task in the Vietnam scene was to make the music reflect its characters and setting. He acknowledged that in the past, operas have traditionally been “artistically imperialistic.”
Hagen chose to have all the Vietnamese characters sing in their language for this reason. “They do so because that is the honorable and respectful thing to have those characters do,” he says.
But to achieve authenticity required much revision and research by Hagen. He studied the Vietnamese language for about sixth months himself and relied on the expertise of several Vietnamese speakers and language coaches.
“I worked extensively with a Vietnamese woman who was a concert pianist … whose mother gave birth to her after her father was killed in the war—he was a soldier.”
Hagen said that he would gradually move notes up the scale, “negotiating” the pitches to achieve the proper meaning of a word being sung in Vietnamese. He recalled the pianist’s feedback:
“You have to go further up in order for it to make sense…
“That’s not high enough because it still doesn’t mean daughter, it means chicken.
“No, no, still not high enough.
“Okay, you can have that.”
Hagen went through this process to specifically create an authentic experience for the audience. But he says languages are always most beautiful when they are properly set in the music.
After this initial revision, Seattle Opera worked with the singers and Cay Bach, a Vietnamese voice coach who declined to be interviewed, to achieve not just proper word choice, but correct pronunciation while the music was being sung.
Singers take it to the stage
Karen Vuong sings one of the two primary Vietnamese roles as the character Trang. Of the 34 singers in the company, 12 learned to sing in Vietnamese, although none have Vietnamese heritage.
Vuong’s ancestry is Chinese but her parents were born in South Vietnam and lived there during the war, so she heard the language spoken a lot as a child.
“My mom, she drilled me pretty rigorously [on the language],” said Vuong. “But then once Cay [our language coach] came in the picture … it was just layer upon layer upon layer of just these subtle things. I didn’t realize that there was a difference in accent between South Vietnam and North Vietnam.”
Figuring out the nuances of the language took hours of practice, sitting in groups and mimicking fluent speakers to ensure accuracy. Opera singers are accustomed to parts written in the Romance languages, but this was an entirely new challenge.
“Singing an Eastern language with a Western approach, all of us have had to explore the best way to get the best possible sound and still have the words be as authentic and clear as possible,” Vuong said.
She is happy to have this opportunity, though. “It’s been great because, being in this opera and making the connection ‘Oh, my family was there during the war,’ all these stories have started coming out of the woodwork.”
When Vuong got her costume, her mother demanded she bring it home to show her and exclaimed, “Oh, that’s exactly what we wore!”
“I look in the mirror and I actually see my grandmother in front of me,” said Vuong.
The reaction from the audience
At the May 12 performance, audience members related to the authenticity of the relationships and emotions portrayed in the opera. Many in attendance were youth or young adults during the war and remember, as Hagen mentioned, how significantly the war influenced American lives for the next several decades.
In the opera, the revelation of a Vietnamese couple going through the same grieving process as Amelia, also for the loss of a loved one during the war, honors both cultural perspectives.
Sandra Gilbert, a season ticket holder who lost her first husband in the Vietnam War, said, “There’s actually a trilogy represented [in the opera], with the Americans, the NVA [North Vietnamese Army], and then the civilian population—and they were all affected.”
Two young adult audience members said they appreciated that the Vietnam scene isn’t overly dramatic as fight scenes can often be, especially in older operas. “This is really gritty and kind of amazing that way,” said Shannon McMullen, of the scene in which both an American and Vietnamese are shot, side by side.
Through this comparison, the authenticity of characters’ emotions and the realistic relationship between the two cultures shows, and seemed to captivate the audience most.
McMullen and Gilbert, along with other audience members, connected the challenges and themes addressed in “Amelia” to the American experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan today, showing that generations of Americans still find this period of history relevant.
By BRIANA WATTS, special to Northwest Vietnamese News
UW News Lab
Caption: Karen Vuong (left), sings one of the two primary Vietnamese roles as the character Trang, and composer Daron Aric Hagen.