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News/Interview: “Tacoma Method” now an opera, Chinese reconciliation in music and poetry

Greg YoutzZhang ErBy Wen Liu   Oct. 3, 2017

You may remember the world premiere, last November, of “Fiery Jade - Cai Yan,” the opera about a legendary Chinese woman of arts of 2000 years ago. Not even a full year later today, another opera is coming out of Tacoma, this time about the city’s own history, The Tacoma Method.

The Tacoma Method is known as the organized expulsion of the Chinese population in Tacoma in early November of 1885, when a mob led by then Mayor Jacob Weisbach marched 150 to 200 Chinese residents to a railroad station in heavy rain and forced them to board a train to Portland.

Things turned around 108 years later when in 1993 the Tacoma City Council passed a resolution to formally apologize for its Chinese expulsion, to promote reconciliation among its citizens, and to build a Chinese Reconciliation Park, close to the former Little Canton burned down in 1885.

Now the story continues, in the form of an opera, another project of collaboration between Prof. Greg Youtz of Pacific Lutheran University, the composer, and Prof. Zhang Er of the Evergreen State College, the librettist. “We believe,” Zhang Er said, “the project is timely for the current debate on immigration and the new challenges a rising China brings to this shore of the Pacific.” Here Prof. Youtz tells us more about the new opera:

WCWD: So the name of the opera is “Tacoma Method,” as in the history of the Chinese exclusion?

Prof. Youtz: Yes, the libretto as I have it from the writer Zhang Er is: "Tacoma Method, an opera in two acts with prelude."

WCWD: What about a story line? Did you find in historical records individual stories, or did you create characters for the opera?

Prof. Youtz: Zhang Er did the historical research above and beyond the easily available in familiar books such as Murray Morgan's "Puget's Sound." She looked at the larger Chinese community and its networks and structures in other Chinatowns on the West Coast and tried to imagine what Tacoma's Chinatown(s) might have included and been like.
          She did invent the details of the historical characters of the wives and children of the Chinese businessmen, and a labor activist character who personifies the role organized labor played in this event.
Mayor Weisbach poster. Source: WA Historical Society          The Chinese were essentially seen as foreign "scabs" hired by Capitalists to undercut local working people, so Zhang Er also brings out Mayor Jacob Weisbach's past as a labor activist in Germany who must have shared this perspective on the Chinese. She also created a historically reasonable, though not well-known, personality for the wife of Tacoma-Puyallup businessman Ezra Meeker who comes across in Zhang Er's telling as quite a bold advocate for the rights of the Chinese. Hopefully all of the plot and characters will be found to be historically informed.

WCWD: Where did you find the inspiration for the music of this opera? Have you used any Cantonese tunes, since most of the early Chinese here were Cantonese?

Prof. Youtz: The inspirations come from my love of both Chinese music and instruments, and American folk music and instruments. At this time on the West Coast Euro-American instruments would have been guitars, banjos, fiddles, band instruments (from the Civil War bands), and perhaps an occasional piano or small foot-pedal church organ. Chinese instruments would have been similarly basic - sanxuan, erhu, dizi, sheng, suona and perhaps some basic percussion. So my instrumentation is a contrast between the folk instruments of these two cultures. Sometimes there is a wonderful similarity - like between the sanxuan and banjo that is a feature of one scene. Also, the sheng mouth organ and the pedal reed organ are remarkably similar in sound in their higher registers. So there will be an implied recognition for audiences that these two peoples have far more in common musically than they think they do socially or culturally.
          I have not yet used any Cantonese tunes, though I have plans to do so as my composing progresses. There are certain scenes where people will play folk tunes, some American, some Chinese, and so I hope to find famous Cantonese tunes to use. I have thought about famous tunes from various parts of China and am trying to decide between using specifically Cantonese tunes or perhaps some pan-China tunes (eg. Huagu Ge) to represent all Chinese who were affected by exclusion acts. By the 1880's many pieces of Chinese music had spread across the country with opera troupes, storytellers, Colonial influences, etc. so there is some historical justification.
          Anyway, this is the sort of thing I consider as I work on the opera. Everything has meaning and so all details must be considered. Zhang Er and I have spent a lot of time thinking about such details in the characters and their words and actions. Some of the characters are just so heinous it is painful to think of giving them voice and song in the opera, but it must be done. I faced the same discomfort 25 years ago in my opera on Native American-White interaction in the Puget Sound area, and I had to give voice to whites who spoke of Native peoples as savages...

WCWD: You said there would be a premiere in October?

Tacoma Chinese Reconciliation PartProf. Youtz: What is happening in October (Saturday the 14th) is the premiere of two arias (songs) from the opera that I have completed. The performance will be for people attending the Tacoma Historical Society's annual dinner/auction.
          This year the theme of the dinner auction is "Honoring Tacoma's Civil Rights Pioneers." We are thus claiming that, in refusing to leave, 1885 Tacoma businessmen Lum May and Sing Lee were some of Tacoma's first civil rights activists. Our performance on October 14 will be with two live singers singing to pre-recorded accompaniment.
          The first is a tenor singing the part of Mayor Jacob Weisbach as he prepares to go out and join the mob. As he sings his own song, he hears in his mind the famous International Labor Anthem "The Internationale" as his inspiration.
          The other singer is store owner Lum May's wife, cowering upstairs with her two children as the mob breaks in downstairs; she wonders how Tacoma could be doing this to her when she has "served tea to you...?"
          Of course we are looking forward to a full performance sometime when the whole opera is complete. No date on that yet.

WCWD: Do you think this opera could have more social impact, as this story is more contemporary, and local, than that of “Fiery Jade - Cai Yan?”

Prof. Youtz: I do hope that this story will continue the recent trend of having operas deal with more recent and even political events than was traditionally the case. Operas such as John Adams’ “Nixon in China” began the trend, and have continued with his “The Death of Klinghoffer" and "Dr. Atomic" and Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking."
           I of course am hoping that this performance in October will spark local community interest and maybe some help in getting a full production scheduled!

(For more information on major events in Washington state-China relations, go to WA China Chronicle.)