University of Houston Ph.D. candidate Janine Joseph specializes in poetry. She'd never written an opera libretto, never thought of writing one, but when the opportunity presented itself, she grabbed it.
Although it wasn't as if she didn't have other qualifications for the job. A talented writer, she'd attracted the interest of Rich Levy of Inprint, who recommended her to the folks at Houston Grand Opera's HGOco. They were looking to commission another operetta in their HGOco's Song of Houston: East+West Initiative, which seeks to depict the immigrant experience in Houston.
Joseph is an immigrant herself -- she moved here from the Philippines when she was nine. And, growing up, she liked musicals and their cousin, opera. "I grew up watching musicals and having an interest in opera, but it was not the kind of writing I was accustomed to doing," Joseph says. "It is rare that something like this comes your way. I knew enough about incorporating music into my own work to take on the task."
The result of her collaboration with composer Jeeyoung Kim is From My Mother's Mother, an opera about a young Korean-American woman dealing with the traditions of her family's culture.
Hana Park will sing the role of the daughter (Soo-Yun) who goes into the hospital to give birth and is confronted by not only her mother and grandmother but their traditions calling for her to eat seaweed soup. A lot of it.
According to Korean custom, a new mother should eat the soup every day for 21 days after her baby is born. And trouble is, the main character in this 30-minute doesn't like the taste of the soup. She knows this for a fact because another part of the Korean tradition is to eat seaweed soup on every one of your birthdays.
In addition, the young mother has eaten something prior to the birth that she isn't supposed to have eaten, Joseph says.
This is the fifth offering in the East+West HGOco series. "It is a unique story about the passing down of culture to your own children," says Sandra Bernhard, HGOco's director.
Joseph says she called on her own immigrant experience to try to understand all the factors going on in the relationship between these three women. At the same time, she says, she was very careful to try to get all the details of this Korean tradition correct. "Not everybody's immigrant experiences are the same," she says.
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Last May, she flew to New York City to meet with composer Kim. Then she returned to Houston to begin. "I started working on the middle part of the opera first. I was building the characters first without music." Then there was an extended back and forth between composer and librettist.
"The soup could be really a stand-in for any other kind of tradition. What we're looking at is what happens when you have various generations, especially with an immigrant family," Joseph says.
Mika Shigematsu will play the mother (Om-Ma). The grandmother (Hal-Mo-Ni) will be sung by Hyo Na Kim. The role of Soo-Yun's husband (Jensen) will be performed by Houstonian Lee Gregory.
The world premiere of From My Mother's Mother is scheduled for 1 p.m. November 3 at Discovery Green. Other performances will be 1 p.m. Sunday, November 4, at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Brown Auditorium (1001 Bissonnet), 6 p.m. Wednesday, November 7, at Houston Public Library, Julia Ideson Building Auditorium (500 McKinney Street) and noon and 7 p.m. Friday, November 9, at the University of Houston, Jose Quintero Theatre (133 Cynthia Woods Mitchell). For information, visit the HGO website or call 713-546-0230. Sung in English. Free.