Q&A: Laura Kaminsky & Kimberly Reed on Bringing the Differing Viewpoints & Cultures Together in ‘Hometown to the World’

By David Salazar
(Credit: Hawai’i Opera Theatre)

The new opera, “Hometown to the World” by composer Laura Kaminsky and librettist Kimberly Reed had its digital world premiere on May 21, 2021, at 1 p.m. HST with Hawai’i Opera Theatre.

“Hometown to the World” is commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera and co-commissioned by the Hawai’i Opera Theatre.

This work centers on the ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raid on a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa in 2008 that left the community in turmoil. The fictional characters we meet learn to relate and rely on each other despite their cultural, religious, and economic differences, which is what Laura Kaminsky and Kimberly Reed hope the audience takes from their new opera. 

OperaWire had a chance to talk to the two creators about their inspirations and collaboration on the work.

OW: What drew you to this storyline?

Laura Kaminsky: I was approached by Andrea Fellowes Feinberg from Santa Fe Opera about a new initiative that they were starting called “Opera for All Voices” and the idea behind this was to change the stories that are being told in opera and the audiences who would be able to participate in experiencing those stories and the ways in which those operas were being conceived. The idea was to have new operas by living composers and librettists telling stories that are not traditionally told that are relevant to the diversity of the world that we live in today that are meaningful in contemporary life that is for all people and not for a mainstage or for large ensemble configurations, and for smaller numbers of instrumental players and singers to tell powerful stories and not necessarily in regular theaters, but in different kinds of spaces that would serve those stories. 

I had recently seen a screening of a documentary film that told this story of an ICE  raid that took place in the small farming community of Postville, Iowa in 2008 in which ICE came in and deported about 25 percent of the town this was a community that has been traditionally mostly European immigrants of Scandinavian descent who are farmers. There was a meatpacking plant that a group of Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn came to Iowa and created a booming business of kosher meat preparation at a slaughterhouse which called for lots of workers, many of them were from Central America. 

What we were charged to do was to tell the story with only three protagonists and a small music ensemble. So Kim and I decided to tell the story of what happened to this community in the aftermath of this raid. We focus on the deportation and the devastation to the social and economic fabric of the town.

OW: Can you talk more about the timeline of events in “Hometown to the World”?

LK: We knew there was no way we could stage a raid. Kim had this idea that we could start with a musical prologue that was representative of the terror and violence of the raid combined with visual imagery that would provide the audience with entry into the story, but that there was no character or storytelling going on with words or people. We built a chorus that is not made up of specific characters. We had this idea of the chorus representing the start of hope that this country could be and also the conscience of the community. 

Kimberly Reed: I think this piece is very much a microcosm of this great American experiment. One of the things I’ve always loved is the text that’s on the Statue of Liberty written by Emma Lazarus. That seemed like a good way to voice the chours, this voice of the future about how we’re going to be successful in this American experiment. This text gave me a base throughout the piece in the chorus parts and then in later scenes as well.

OW: How did you go about figuring out which characters’ points of view would be highlighted in this opera?

KR: It was pretty clear that we would need to represent the three main groups that were in town. This group includes European immigrants, mostly northern European Scandinavian Dutch immigrants who were farmers, the second group immigrated from Brooklyn to open up this meatpacking plant, and the third main group was Guatemalan workers.

We tell this story through Linda Larson who’s one of the people of Scandinavian descent. She’s a person in that community that has a fair amount of power. She’s a County Commissioner that makes a lot of decisions, especially about agriculture.

There’s Linda Morales who is a Guatemalan worker of Mayan descent whose husband and son had just been deported. She’s been allowed to stay in town, like many of the people who had children who were born in the U.S. she’s been allowed to stay with an anklet that monitors her location.

The third person, Abraham Fleischman is a young man who’s Hasidic. Hasidic folks usually stick together in their community so it would be unusual for someone like Abraham to be interacting with others outside of his culture, but his people also have a custom of shunning gay people in their community, and Abraham is just come out to his father so he’s been set adrift in this community. 

What we tried when to do when constructing these characters is to find ways for each of them to depend on the other so that we don’t have a replication of power structures that typically existed in the town because of what happened in the wake of this immigration rate is that all of those power structures were just scuttled and everything fell apart, so as an effort to rebuild in the wake of this traumatic events we learn that they all depend on each other and that they all really have to learn to see the world through each other’s eyes if they’re going to rebuild this community.

LK: I think that one of the things that was important to Kim and me as we were creating the story that we wanted to tell was to not make any kind of it is caricatures of these people that would set them up as either perpetrator of evil or victims of evil because there would be no drama and exploration of humanity that all people have.

Each of these three characters from three different cultures, three different religious faiths, three different sets of beliefs, three different languages, and three different economic statuses despite all that difference it was only through cooperation and finding understanding that they can have a functioning society. 

OW: Laura, can you talk more about the musical approach for this opera?

LK: This is actually our fourth opera together. We did three other operas but in collaboration with librettist Mark Campbell. This was our first time as a duo. Because of our earlier projects, Kim really knows how I think about music and its role in creating the soundscape. She knows that I think visually and sort of symbolically about the use of instruments. I proposed to her that we would create a warm round and full sound with the strings, clarinet, and percussion. 

Because Abraham Fleischman comes from the Hasidic culture where the music-making tradition is pretty rich. In his culture, the clarinet is an important instrument, so here it creates that plaintive, soulful quality and represents Abraham’s spirit and that piece of longing and energy. The percussionist plays a ton of different instruments including a lot of things that just make noise for example in the raid, but in the big scene where Linda Morales after having had a fight with Abraham and retreats to her room to lament over what the world has come to and everything she’s lost we hear the marimba.

There are marimba-like instruments in all parts of the world that sounds are used to evoke their sense of pain and spirituality and hopefulness at the same time. So I chose to use the marimba because it would be prevalent as a window into her soul.

For Linda Larson, I used all the instruments in a way that underscores her nervous energy and franticness about the world that she had lived in Postville. With the instrumental combinations, I always try to evoke something true about the spirit of the characters. 

OW: Kim, how do you resolve the piece and the musical conversation?

KR: As a librettist, I feel like it’s my job to use words to put the composer in a position where they can resolve these emotions that have been set up in the text or they can resolve those musically. When we were weaving these three different groups that have three different languages and three different religions, and  cultural traditions, it was always clear to me that the whole piece needed to resolve musically with the union of those three cultural traditions and languages and religions so this piece called “Repair the World.”

This comes from a Hebrew phrase “Tikkun olam” which is an idea that it’s your job to wake up every day and do what you can to make a better place than it’s been given to you. I think this is a very beautiful, hopeful, and forward-looking idea that we should all aspire to especially today. I also pull text for this scene from traditional prayers for each of their traditions in Hebrew, Spanish, and the Lutheran tradition so that’s what gets woven together so beautifully by Laura’s magnificent music. We visualized the characters in their private spaces deep in their own prayers as they were hoping for a better world and just with a few lines of prayerful text until the chours joins and it becomes a unified prayer. I tried to put Laura in a position where all of these three musical and linguistic traditions respond to each other. 

OW: Both of your operas “As One” and “Hometown to the World” discuss current topics. Can you talk about the creative process and why it’s important to take on these subjects?

LK: I think that we are artists but we’re people first and we’re moved by the world we live in and we’re upset by the world where we live in. I can try to have some impact on the world through my art, so I want to make art about the issues that I care about and my hope for the world to be a better place and to seek understanding and shed light on these things. I think one of the things that’s important is that working in an abstract form such as music is that it can be so direct in impacting one’s emotions.

It’s a very humbling kind of an endeavor because I know that if we hit it right, we can touch people in a very deep way that having an argument can’t. The role of an artist is full of responsibility and I don’t take it lightly. 

KR: I think it’s actually very simple why we tell each other stories and why we accompany them with music. I really think it is a very simple process of us as humans wanting to empathize with each other. No matter what story you hear it’s always the story of somebody else because we are all trying to learn and empathize with each other and for me, that’s what motivates me. So what better way to tell those stories about other people there inevitably gonna bump up against these power structures that we built in our society. It just happens when you’re talking about the people moving through the world who run into these political issues, so how can you not talk about them? 

LK: I think that’s for me having now had this experience telling this story which is purposely about contemporary social issues political issues that we’re dealing with this is this iteration of it in this country now but this has been going on forever around the world in different places this is part of what makes human beings flawed that we abuse and manipulate cultures and religions for economic gain and for differentiation and for power struggle and like we never learn. So it was imperative that Kim and I told the story together. 

 OW: What do you hope the audience takes away from “Hometown to the World”?

KR: I hope that this music and text lets people see the world through somebody else’s eyes.

LK: I totally agree with Kim, and in doing so there is a deepening of the understanding that we are all human and by accepting that after that make a better world.

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