Flea Theater 2023 Review: Both Eyes Open

By Chris Ruel
Photos: Carlos Castaneda

One of the numerous illusions about United States history among Americans is that the country is the ultimate force for good in the world, “a shining city upon a hill,” as President Ronald Reagan declared. We believe in the fiction of rugged individualism, exceptionalism, the solitary figure on horseback with a six-shooter and a Remington, and our unassailable goodness.

Americans have much to be proud of, accomplishments that should not be overlooked. We, as a nation, have battled and died for democracy against formidable opponents all over the world; we have led in innovation; and we are generally fair and helpful to each other and our allies when calamities of any type—natural or human-made—strike.

Yet we choose to ignore the darker side: genocide of Native Americans, slavery, the devastation of beautiful landscapes, and outright hostility of those we claim to welcome, be they Irish, Italians, Chinese, Latin Americans, and so on. With each wave of immigrants comes the opprobrium of the ‘other.’ That is not only our nation’s past, but, terribly, our present as well.

One of the stains on American history is the internment of 120,000 people of Japanese descent living in the US, one-third of whom were born in the United States, during the Second World War. These were fully-fledged citizens, protected by the Constitution, equal under the law, and a part of the American tapestry. Yet Japanese Americans were imprisoned forcibly for fear of forming a fifth column.

Particularly singled out were those who replied “No” to Questions 27 and 28 of the Loyalty Oath. Question 27 asked if Nisei men (second generation, born in America) would serve in combat if summoned. Question 28 asked for unqualified loyalty to the United States and called for the renunciation of any and all allegiance to the Japanese Emperor. Those who answered “No” and “No” were labeled ‘No-No Boys’ and were considered the most dangerous of Japanese Americans. The No-Nos were sent to Tule Lake Maximum Security “Segregation Center”—a euphemism if ever there was one—in Tulelake, California. Let us call it what it was: a maximum-security prison filled with innocent men, women, and children whose only crime was being Japanese American. Due process and equality under the law? How quaint.

Oftentimes, answering “No” and “No” to Questions 27 and 28 were done for reasons unrelated to loyalty to Japan. Some Japanese American men were perplexed. If they responded “Yes” to Question 28, would they still be sent into combat despite their conscientious objection to serving? Some No-Nos responded in the negative in protest, but that came with consequences when the camps closed—Tule Lake was shuttered in May 1946, nearly a year after Japan’s surrender.

The Japanese American prisoners at the Tule Lake facility were designated as “enemies of the state” and, as such, placed behind barbed-wire fences with armed guards in watchtowers and housed in barracks unsuitable for human habitation. Medical care was almost non-existent, leading to needless deaths. Food was nearly inedible, protests within camps were mercilessly suppressed, and daily life a struggle. Tule Lake and camps around the country were hellish places.

One of the most unsettling elements of this atrocious history was that once the war was over, the government expected Japanese Americans to forgive Uncle Sam; after all, what was done was done for the sake of the nation’s defense. In other words, “Sorry for doing that to you, but let’s move on…” as if the camps were just an anomaly in an otherwise stellar history of freedom and democracy.

How about “No” ad infinitum?

In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act in which Congress apologized on behalf of the nation for the internment camps, saying they did “a grave injustice” to those of Japanese ancestry. Reparations were made: $20,000 was given to over 82,000 of the 112,000 formerly interned Japanese Americans. In total, over one billion dollars went toward reparations (three billion dollars in 2019 money).

Let us put that in perspective. The same year Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, the nation’s defense budget was $309.66 billion. While $20,000 in 1988 was worth more than today, it was still a pittance for a trip to hell, and some of the formerly interned did not get a penny. Japanese Americans lost their homes, their farms, their livelihoods, and their human dignity, yet all the government could spare was one billion dollars. Making tangible amends for past evils is not one of America’s strengths.

Sad. Yes, but sad is an adjective and an emotion. It is right to feel that way about the camps and white America’s hatred toward Japanese Americans, but reprehensible, disgusting, and utterly shameful are the correct adjectives, for they describe the policy, its implementation, and the foul mistreatment of American citizens of Japanese descent from 1941 to 1946.

Comprehending the history of this American tragedy is important to understanding librettist Philip Kan Gotanda’s and composer Max Giteck Duykers’ chamber opera “Both Eyes Open,” which premiered at the Flea Theater in New York on January 12, 2023. A strong sensation of horror sits in your gut when the house lights come on. “Americans did this to other Americans? Oh my God.” Because we have conveniently glossed over details of what Japanese Americans faced, the opera was a gut punch.

You might remark, “Thanks for the history lesson, but what about the opera?”

Understand that the opera’s program was a detailed, history-filled booklet. I applaud the creative team for providing so thorough a background of information. The reviewer appreciates their careful work, and they deserve all the praise and credit for the history that was justly provided.

Opera No Longer Relevant?

The plot of Duykers and Gotanda’s “Both Eyes Open” revolves around a Japanese American farmer named Jinzo Matsumoto, sung by the baritone Suchan Kim, and his romance and marriage to Catharine, whom soprano Zen Wu portrayed. From their awkward courtship through their early marriage, we see the pair during their happiest moments in the 1930s.

With the arrival of 1941 comes the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, killing 2,403 people, including 68 civilians. There were over 1,000 casualties. Eight battleships were among the 19 US Navy vessels that were lost or damaged. Japan destroyed the American Pacific Fleet in an hour and fifteen minutes. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who famously wrote in his diary, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a deadly resolve,” realized the implications of the Imperial Navy’s onslaught almost immediately.

Indeed, they did. Later that day, the US declared war on Japan, beginning a brutal conflict that lasted until August 1945.

America was furious, and Japanese Americans would suffer the consequences. They take Jinzo and Catherine into custody, place them on a train with its’ windows blacked out, and send them to a camp in Rohwer, Arkansas, where Catherine and their child pass away during childbirth because of non-existent medical care.

‘The land of opportunity,’ where a Japanese potato farmer named George Shima became the first Asian millionaire in the US, had lost its luster. Jinzo responds “No” to both Questions 27 and 28 of the Loyalty Oath in angry protest, which makes him an enemy of the state, so the government transfers him to Tule Lake.

At the close of the war, all Japanese Americans were given their lives back—so to speak. When Jinzo returns to his farm, he is met by the new owner, a Japanese American woman. The woman knows Jinzo is a No-No Boy and berates and strikes him, angered that her husband had fought and died for traitors like him. He, unlike, the No-Nos, had done his duty as an American. Jinzo’s experience was not uncommon. Nisei men found ways of dealing with their shame—from hiding their past to suicide.

The courageous exploits of the over 14,000 Nisei males who rotated through the all-Japanese American 442nd Regiment, the most decorated in United States history with 18,000 awards—4,000 Purple Hearts and 4,000 Bronze Stars—only compounded No-No shame. Their battlefield successes were testament to their dedication to the ideals of America at a time when white Americans exhibited virulent hatred of all things Japanese.

Jinzo, shamed and penniless, commits suicide, placing himself in front of an oncoming train.

“Both Eyes Open” demonstrates the strength of opera as an art form and its’ contemporary relevance. The audience gets crushed by history throughout Duykers and Gotanda’s opera. It hurts to think about it, and it is challenging not to feel ashamed. It is unusual to hear nothing at all when a show ends. So it was in the Flea Theater. Until the cast took their bows to resounding applause, it appeared like few in the crowd knew how to react.

History Onstage

The opera’s structure, as previously indicated, was not conventional and had substantial amounts of dialogue for an 80-minute performance.

Stage left in the black-box theater were musicians. At center-left downstage, a Daruma doll was perched on a pedestal. Tenor John Duykers—not to be confused with Max Giteck Duykers, the composer—was seated stage right. Kim and Wu stayed center stage throughout the opera.

Duykers played the part of the Daruma Doll and wore a scarlet, flowing robe like a monk’s. The character is an ever-present narrator throughout the opera, but Duykers also plays a number of small, non-speaking roles. He becomes a farmer when he dons a straw cowboy hat. Similarly, when he puts a head mirror on, he transforms into a doctor.

A Daruma doll is what? Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk who lived in the fifth or sixth century CE and is credited with inventing Shaolin kung fu, is known in Japan as ‘Daruma.’ Bodhidharma’s biography is very sketchy, and what is known about him should be treated with caution and as legend. What is true, however, is that the Daruma is the Japanese styling of Bodhidharma.

The doll itself is thought to possess mystical abilities that can bring luck. Usually, they are fashioned of paper mâché and are merely heads, lacking bodies and eyeballs. Owners of a Daruma are required to make a specific wish. One eyeball is painted in once the wish is made. The second eye is added if the wish is granted. The meaning of the title “Both Eyes Open” may be quite subtle, implying both the significance of the doll in Jinzo and Catherine’s lives as a good-luck charm, as well as the idea that seeing things clearly requires having both eyes open. Unfortunately, the Daruma doll Jinzo and Catherine bury in their field does not bring luck.

Tall and with a baritone speaking voice, J. Duykers was the ideal narrator. When he sings, however, he is a tenor and it is apparent why he has appeared at many renowned venues across the world. Famously, he embodied the character of Mao Tse Tung in John Adam’s “Nixon in China.” Duykers has performed in over 100 contemporary works, and he is a passionate advocate for them all.

The question that arose after reading his bio and listening to him was: why is he singing off-key? Duyker’s out-of-tune singing gave the vocal line discord, conflict, and uncertainty. All three states are appropriate for the story. Jinzo and Catherine, both citizens of the United States, struggle to reconcile the country’s terrible xenophobia, bigotry, and racism with its reputation as a land of opportunity and freedom. In the drama’s background, a global struggle rages, and Jinzo, Catherine, and all Japanese Americans face a future that is incredibly uncertain.

Suchan Kim is a compelling baritone with a sophisticated, stentorian voice. Sporadic bright moments show a youthful and somewhat naïve guy with no idea what lies in front of him. The audience witnesses a man’s entire existence destroyed by injustice and cruelty. Kim had to get through the emotional maze in just 80 minutes, not over the course of three or four hours, and he managed the gauntlet wonderfully.

Dramatic coloratura soprano Zen Wu portrayed a young lady whose life is cut short and whose ambitions are crushed, matching Kim’s tremendous stage presence. Catherine is kind but strong, has a sharp mind, and a strong sense of independence. Both songs and conversations feature these characteristics. As she encounters the ugliness of life behind barbed wire, her voice—both speaking and singing—transitions from light innocence to weighty maturity and, finally, utter tragedy. It was heart-wrenching to see Wu’s depiction of Catherine’s final moments. In this scene, M. Duykers and Gotanda brought verismo into the 21st century with a death scene that rivals most of Puccini’s doomed heroines.

Tight Story with Unique Orchestration

Gotanda’s libretto is Verdi-tight. Every scene furthers the plot, never bogging down in minutia or sidetracked by historical background. That can all be found in the program. Without contextualization, the opera is a tragic love story set in an internment camp. When placed within the larger conflicts—Japan against Allied Forces, white Americans against Japanese Americans—it takes on an epic quality by the amount of ground it covers during its short runtime. Jinzo and Catherine are swept up in something infinitely larger than themselves. The macro tragedy of world war intersects with the micro tragedy of personal love and loss. Gotanda trusts his audience to familiarize themselves with the macro through the detailed but easily digestible program notes. This approach freed the librettist to focus solely on the micro without sacrificing the massive sweep of the war years.

There’s another interesting element to the storyline. While the government used national security as its rationale for placing Japanese Americans in concentration camps, was it the only reason? Or was the increasing prosperity of Japanese Americans rankling white farmers? The Alien Land Laws were crafted as a devious way to limit the rights of Asian immigrants. Many Japanese immigrants farmed as a livelihood. Farms are parcels of land, and land is worth money. Removing Japanese Americans from their farms freed up a large amount of land for white Americans. Anti-Japanese groups whipped up hatred that led to such laws through disinformation, pointing to an imaginary economic threat and the lie that Japanese immigrants did not want to assimilate into American society.

The music, composed by M.G. Duykers, was an eerie fusion of conventional and electronic instruments. Four musicians made up Ensemble Ipse: pianist Geoffrey Burleson, clarinetist Christa Van Alstine, and violinist Esther Noh. Guest performer Joel Davel, a Marimba Lumina artist, joined them. A Marimba Lumina is played by striking and activating electronic pads and sliders using mallets. The percussionist/sound alchemist used four mallets to activate and control a broad variety of sounds, from symphony instruments to sound effects. One pad, for instance, might be utilized for a variety of pre-programmed sounds. It was fascinating to witness Davel perform two tasks simultaneously while displaying virtuosity on his hallmark instrument. He incorporated dozens of sounds into the story and emulated extra instruments to give the ensemble’s line more depth.

On the podium was Benjamin Makino, who held the position of Music Director of Opera Memphis and is well-versed in innovation. He left his mark on the company. During his tenure, he introduced innovative community programs, unique commissions, and experimentation. OPERA America has recognized Makino as one of the art form’s future leaders. Interpreting and presenting the innovative score was undoubtedly no small task when a Marimba Lumina was in the mix. Effect cues were mixed in with musical ones. Though his band was small, he had a lot going on, all of which he appeared to handle with ease.

Another creative alchemist’s artistry was on display, literally. Visual alchemist Matthew Eben Jones’ 3D depictions of the Tule Lake barracks, the train ride to Rohwer, and bountiful fields, were some of the best projections I have seen. According to his bio, Eben Jones ‘creates immersive, stereo-scope, audio reactive projections…’ Yes, he certainly does. Visually stunning, the projections—combined with Joel Davel’s wizardry—situated the audience in the story.

The final and most disturbing visual came last. It was a photo of an unknown Japanese American who committed suicide by placing his neck on one of the rails. His body lay on one side, while his head was between the tracks. But returning to the ideas of the macro and the micro, the gruesome photo showed the impact of a US policy born of racism and fear on individuals, using one intensely powerful image of a man driven to suicide by shame, dehumanization, and a very uncertain future. But there is something else intriguing about the photo. A Daruma doll has no legs, no torso, and no arms. It too is just a head.


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