by Roxanne Ray
(This article was previously published at International Examiner and has been reprinted with permission.)
Tacoma Method, the benign-sounding name of a new full-length opera composed by Gregory Youtz with libretto by Zhang Er, actually refers to a much more violent period in Tacoma’s history. In 1885, the mayor and prominent citizens of Tacoma decided that they had a “Chinese Problem,” and on November 3, 1885, they chose to forcibly expel their Chinese community at gunpoint, terming that action “the Tacoma Method” of creating a white city in what was then Washington Territory.
Youtz and Er’s new opera is the product of several years of collaboration. “In about 2014, the newly arrived director of Tacoma Opera, Mr. Noel Koran, heard about the history of the 1885 Chinese Expulsion and thought it would make a good opera for students in schools,” Youtz recalled. “He wrote a grant but did not receive funds, so that was shelved.”
But Er was fascinated with the history of Tacoma’s Chinese community. “Greg approached me sometime in the spring of 2014 about a possible collaborative project with Tacoma Opera about the Chinese expulsion episode from Tacoma in 1885,” she said. “I felt the story had to portray the humanity, [the] commonalities of the Chinese with any other migrants who came to U.S. West Coast.”
Er and Youtz knew the partnership would be fruitful because they had previously created an opera together after meeting a decade ago. “I gave a lecture at The Evergreen State College in about 2011 on my many pieces that utilize influences from Chinese culture, and Zhang Er was in the audience,” Youtz said. “She talked to me about operas and her libretti that she had written out of curiosity.”
For her part, Er appreciated the content of Youtz’s lecture. “I was impressed by his interest, the depth of research that went into the history, and the esthetic of his music,” she recounted. “It is accessible from either side of Eastern and Western soundscapes, but it is unique and challenging in its nuance and complicity.”
It was fortuitous for Er that Youtz was open to new opportunities. “I started working on a complete new libretto about the legendary Han dynasty Chinese woman poet, Cai Yan, who was also a musician,” Er said. “I presented Greg this second libretto, Fiery Jade: Cai Yan as a possible collaborative project.”
Pacific Lutheran University, Youtz’s employer, agreed to premiere the new work, so the duo finished the opera and presented it in 2016. “I would talk through a scene, as the words on the page can be brief and poetic, for the emotional undercurrents are in the audience’s imagination and for the music to induce and augment,” Er said. “Greg would design and compose the music, then I would listen and comment.”
They followed a similar creative practice for Tacoma Method. “It is fortunate that Zhang Er knows opera very well and that I have spent 30 years studying Chinese culture,” Youtz said. “She has an excellent sense of what and how much information needs to be in a libretto and of course her work as a poet, mostly in Chinese, gives her English words a true specialness.”
Opera has been an avenue for Er to explore her deepest interests since 2010. “I love stories, and I love human singing voices, as they are the two things that touch my being to the core,” she said. “So opera, for me, is the ultimate art form to reach people and to transform the mind.”
And she finds Tacoma’s history relevant despite the 135 years that have passed since the Chinese community’s violent expulsion. “The story is relevant in today’s world precisely because we still face the dilemma when we encounter people of different culture with different looks, worldview, religion, and food practices from us,” she said. “Do we fight them off, tolerate them, learn from them, find our common humanity and celebrate them?”
After studying the history of that event in depth, Er ultimately based her libretto upon a single family’s story. “After months of panning through books and documents, I came across Mr. Lum May’s affidavit on what happened on November 3, 1885,” she said. “I was struck by his telling of how his wife went mad after being manhandled by the rioters who broke into their house to physically remove the Chinese residents. That account struck a chord.”
May’s account went beyond mere words. “I felt the raw feeling and the vivid presence of the ancestors who came to Tacoma 100 years earlier,” Er said. “I knew that we had a drama now, rather than just a history lesson or social justice preaching.”
Er focused several songs in Tacoma Method on the role of Mrs. Lum May and recruited soprano Hai-Ting Chinn for the role. “I had worked with librettist Zhang Er in the past, on a piece called Moon in the Mirror, a modern reflection on the myth of the female moon deity, and was very excited when she suggested me for the role of Mrs. May,” Chinn said. “I consider myself a native of the Pacific Northwest, having grown up near Eureka, California, a town which is mentioned in the Tacoma Method libretto as another place from which the Chinese were expelled in the last 19th century.”
Chinn knew of her cultural history but found Tacoma’s history to be a surprise. “Like so many things we have learned this past year about the depths of racism in American history,” she said, “this emblematic event deserves to be remembered.”
And this sentiment of Er and Chinn aligns with Youtz’s mission to compose in service to social and cultural ideas that need to be discussed. “I am attracted to big, serious ideas that are too often not dealt with in classical music, often because presenting organizations assume their audience does not want politics or even serious worldly topics at their concerts,” he said. “So my challenge is to write pieces about serious topics that engage audiences in ways they hadn’t thought about before.”
That is a challenge for Er, as well, because in addition to being a writer, she also considers herself a cultural dramaturg. “Most of my work is about crossing boundaries — cultural, lingual, musical, gender, life and death, species boundaries — which is, by nature, a messy business, experimental try and error,” she said. “In opera, music, performance, and staging carry more weight than mere words and even the plot. A dramaturg is the invisible glue to hold it together and offer it to the audience as a whole.”
A 40-minute program of excerpts from Tacoma Method was originally scheduled to be performed by Symphony Tacoma but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “That is now rescheduled for the 2022-23 season when audiences are hopefully fully back in auditoriums,” Youtz said. “The staged full opera, scored for chamber orchestra, is not yet scheduled for production, so any group that wants a world premiere can let us know!”
In the meantime, viewers can partake of a conversation between Er, Youtz, and Chinn, plus performance excerpts of Tacoma Method recorded and presented on YouTube.
Roxanne Ray is a Seattle-based writer covering the arts.
📸 Featured Image: Mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn in a screen capture of an excerpt from Tacoma Method taken from “Tacoma Method: Conversation with Greg Youtz, Zhang Er and Hai-Ting Chinn” on YouTube.
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