Two years ago, the IE spoke to librettist Zhang Er and composer Gregory Youtz, who were in the process of developing their new opera Tacoma Method about the November, 1885, expulsion of the Chinese population from Tacoma. Now, the opera receives a full production by the Tacoma Opera at the Rialto Theater, running from March 31 to April 2.

Performing in the full production are local performers Soon Cho and Ivy Zhou, who portray the roles of Mrs. May and Mrs. Lee, the wives in two families who struggle with the impending expulsion of the Chinese people in Tacoma.

Mrs. May is the show’s female protagonist — a mother of two children, a wife to a store owner, a mentor in the Chinese community, and a friend to her community.

“In the beginning of the opera, [Mrs May] believes in the American Dream and has high hopes for her two daughters to live a life of opportunities and freedom not afforded to her in China,” Cho said. “By the end of the opera, her dream is crushed by white citizens one fateful day: the mob forces her family out of their home and the city of Tacoma. She loses everything, including her sanity at the end.”

Portraying Mrs. Lee has also been an interesting challenge for Zhou. “The Mrs. Lee written into the libretto is generally a little more traditional than her friend Mrs. May,” she relayed. “She adheres to ideas such as foot-binding, deferring to elders’ wisdom on the naming of a new child, and a certain wariness of sending girls to school.

The two characters represent contrasting perspectives of women at that time and Zhou strives to add texture and humanity to her performance. 

As an actor, playing Mrs. Lee as simply conservative and meek got dull, so throughout the rehearsal process I worked to find the more fun-loving aspects of Mrs. Lee, particularly in conjunction with my colleague Soon Cho,” Zhou said.

“Mrs. May and Mrs. Lee obviously have such a fun rapport, and it’s in the safety of that friendship that Mrs. Lee blossoms throughout the show, even in the face of her greatest trial — separation from her husband and facing physical danger for her and her son.

Hatch Mill with Chinese residences in the foreground • Wikimedia Commons

Cho first learned about Tacoma Method’s development from Youtz two years ago. “We are both music professors at Pacific Lutheran University,” Cho said. “I did not know of Tacoma’s dark history in 1885 until Greg told me the story.

Zhou’s first introduction came from director Barry Johnson in June 2022, when he invited her to audition.

“I had previously heard rumblings that Tacoma Opera was interested in producing this story, and was thrilled that a local company would be presenting a new composition as part of its season and taking on the challenge of telling this untold story,” Zhou said. “I have long felt that the Asian American story has been sorely neglected in opera, in favor of Asian, or worse, Orientalist, operas such as Turandot and Madame Butterfly.”

Having moved here in 2019, Tacoma’s history is new to Zhou. “I know that the presence of Chinese immigrants has been integral to the story of the West Coast for many decades in a way that it isn’t on the East Coast, where I am from,” she said.

Cho herself is an immigrant of Asian descent and she finds that Tacoma Method resonates with her deeply. “To imagine all the hard work and perseverance to overcome obstacles to build a better life for your family in a new country, only to be taken away by a group of fearful people is soul crushing,” she said. “I was given the opportunity to tell this important story and I could not pass it up.”

To prepare for the role of Mrs. May, Cho recalled memories of her family’s adaptation to American life, including ongoing racism. “My family first immigrated to a part of the US that was predominately white, so I experienced racism first hand growing up and as an adult as a professional singer and university professor,” Cho shared. “I was able to bring to surface some difficult memories from my past to depict this role.”

Group of citizens including Mayor Robert Jacob Weisbach responsible for intimidating the Chinese during the anti-Chinese riots in Tacoma, Washington, November 3, 1885 • Wikimedia Commons

In contrast, Zhou’s experience more closely mirrors that of the Mays’ and Lees’ children.

“My own parents immigrated from China during the ‘highly skilled immigrant’ wave of the late 80’s, and faced various instances of discrimination throughout their journey of establishing a small business, from hostile neighbors who vandalized our mailbox and blocked zoning petitions, to colleagues and employers who took advantage of their relative lack of legal power,” she said. “These kinds of struggles are often never brought to legal action, and therefore go unnoticed by most Americans.”

Cho agreed. “Through this opera, I want the audience to have the desire to engage in productive dialogue with folks different from them, to discover that people, in general, are more alike than different,” she said. “It’s been amazing to share the stage with so many other professional singers of Asian heritage, and we represent half of the principals on the opera stage.”

The same kind of optimism fills Zhou as a result of this new production.

“A few newer works have recently joined the ranks, and works that come to mind are Stuck Elevator by Byron Au Yong and Aaron Jafferis, and An American Dream by Jack Perla and Jessica Murphy Moo,” Zhou said. “I’m hopeful that Tacoma Method will likewise join the canon of performed works that illustrate the Asian American experience.”

Tacoma Method runs March 31 to April 2 at Tacoma Opera’s Rialto Theater, 310 South Ninth Street, Tacoma.

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