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Tapestry Opera’s Naomi’s Road shows trauma of Japanese internment camps

Naomi’s Road, by Tapestry Opera, in Toronto.

Dahlia Katz

Naomi’s Road
Tapestry Opera
St. David’s Anglican Church

Tapestry Opera opened its 2016 season on Wednesday night with a powerful production of an opera whose very specific story echoes and resonates loudly and menacingly today.

Naomi's Road is an opera, originally written in 2005 for children, based on Joy Kogawa's tale of her childhood experiences during the Second World War, when she and many other innocent Japanese Canadians were forcibly removed from their homes, relocated to internment camps, saw their possessions sold by the government to pay for their own internment and then forced to go to places – "east of the Rockies" – at war's end.

It is and is not a familiar story in today's Canada. Many of us can recite the bare facts of the travails and torments of these Canadians – the federal government formally apologized to the victims and offered them compensation in 1988. But knowing the facts of this wartime outrage, and feeling the trauma that those facts disguise, are two quite different things. Joy Kogawa's celebrated Obasan, from which Naomi's Road was derived, accomplished this feat – and so, brilliantly, did Tapestry's performance of her story on Wednesday night.

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Because Naomi's Road was originally written for children by librettist Ann Hodges and composer Ramona Luengen, there is a certain simplicity in the story being told onstage. But in the end, this was a strength rather than a weakness for the production, because these kinds of stories are always, when all the political machinations and sophisticated analyses are stripped away, desperately simple. They are stories of fear, and hate on one side and the power of fortitude and persistence and love on the other.

Tapestry's success with Naomi's Road was created, first and foremost, by the excellent cast that director Michael Mori assembled for the production.

Hiather Darnel-Kadonaga was a winning Naomi, with a beautiful expressive soprano voice, which allowed us to hear every word she spoke, combined with a fine stage presence that kept her a 10-year-old in our imagination all night.

Erica Iris was magisterial, powerful and steadfast in her role as Obasan, Naomi's aunt, who looks after the girl when her mother is trapped visiting Japan as the war breaks out. But then she was playful and charming and youthful as Naomi's friend Mitzi. (It wasn't until I got home and looked at the program that I realized these two characters had been played by the same performer.)

Sam Chung was intense when needed, childish as needed, as Naomi's brother Stephen, and Sung Taek Chung was excellent in a variety of roles, particularly as the children's loving father.

Mori's direction was sturdy and clear, Stephanie Chua provided solid accompaniment on the piano, and Luengen's score and Hodges's words were both effective in outlining clearly and movingly the various emotional states of the characters before us.

For all its darkness, Naomi's Road is a story of hope and love, where small, tiny acts of kindness manage to leaven monstrous acts of injustice, and where family, and the love of family, is seen as an inextinguishable force.

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However, as Kogawa, now 81, stood in front of an audience on their feet at opera's end, you realized that persistence and steadfastness, the ability to simply outlast prejudice and hate, may be the real message of Naomi's Road. We'd like to believe that stories like hers are things of the past, but we suspect that that isn't true, that we have a future where the warnings and lessons of Naomi's Road will be vividly relevant.

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