Memory Stone Looks at the Japanese-American Experience in Houston

Matthew Ozawa, a freelance stage director based in Chicago, had heard wonderful things from his director friends about Houston Grand Opera's practice of commissioning operettas to encourage new talent and to reach out to the community.

So he wrote Evan Wildstein, director of programs for HGOCo, the opera's outreach arm, and was told they had something that he might be perfect for in their next East + West program offering -- a work about two Japanese-American women in Houston in the days after the tsunami hit Japan in 2011. Ozawa, a fourth-generation Japanese-American, was immediately intrigued. The Memory Stone is set at Houston's Japanese Garden at Hermann Park. As Ozawa explains it, actual memory stones are set along a beach after a natural disaster to show where the storm struck, and where rebuilding should not occur. But as history shows, of course, it does.

"From this point to the shore, do not build any homes," Ozawa said. A tsunami hit Japan in 1896, and homes were built back past the memory stone placed there. Another hit in the same spot in 1933 and wiped out that area again and even further upshore. Another memory stone was placed, but again, rebuilding occurred. Finally in 2011 a tsunami hit again and all was wiped out again.

Ozawa said when the latest tsunami hit, many Japanese-Americans who hadn't been brought up speaking Japanese felt no connection to the event. "Many didn't know where the tusnami had happened and had no ties to it," he said. "This is bringing people kind of home in a way."

Ozawa, who has worked with the Santa Fe Opera, the Lyric Center in Chicago, and other opera houses across the United States grew up thinking he'd be a professional clarinet player in an orchestra, but during his time at Oberlin College decided to switch to directing with the encouragement of his parents who told him he had a gift of being about to see the visual and how people could fit together on stage. (He'll be back here next year to direct A Little Night Music on the opera's main stage).

He has nothing but praise for HGOCo in his development of this 48-minute work. "They have been very trusting with our team." This is longer, he said, than several of the other HGOCo efforts -- ""It's almost like a real one-act opera" -- which he said enabled them to give more depth to the characters and story telling.

In fact, Ozawa said they decided not to do a pre- or post-show add on "but let the audience walk in and take what they may from it."

And even though the work may hold special poignancy for Japanese-Americans, Ozawa said anyone should be able "to tap into some aspect of this love, loss and hardship. These are universal truths. People know what a disaster is."

Free performances of Memory Stone are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. April 9, 10 and 11 at the Asia Society Texas Center, 1370 Southmore Boulevard. For information go to www.asiasociety.org/texas.

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