In its continuing Song of Houston: East + West, a series of original chamber operas that document Houston's amazing diversity of world communities, HGOco (Houston Grand Opera's second company devoted to education and outreach) presents New Arrivals, the dramatic true story of Cambodian refugee -- and now proud Houston citizen -- Yani Rose Keo, founder of Houston's Alliance for Multicultural Community Services, which assists refugees and immigrants in finding a new home here in the Bayou City.
In a chilling escape that could plot a Hitchcock thriller, Yani, with husband and young child (the older children were studying in Paris), fled the hideously evil Communist regime of the Khmer Rouge. Except for three of them, the plane they took into Thailand was empty. She and her husband never saw their parents, relatives, or friends again. They were all killed in Pol Pot's holocaust, which targeted anyone who could read, write, or wore glasses. Teachers, students, doctors, civil servants, Buddhist monks, shop owners, all of Cambodia's middle class, were massacred, starved in "relocation" camps, or tortured then killed. In a grisly estimate, 2.7 million innocents lie in the Killing Fields.
Yani's story of survival and conquest, if never one of complete closure, is ripe for musical treatment. Young composer John Glover and librettist Catherine Filloux take the barest of outlines, using her plane trip as its center of focus, and turn it into an impressionist musical sketch that, despite those few places where it rings with deep feeling, never lives up to its magnificently human subject.
The dramatic arc of Yani's life is packed with gut-wrenching drama, but the opera makers have placed her (soprano Mihoko Kinoshita) on that lonely symbolic plane ride far from any conflict, opera's lifeblood. There's nothing for her to do except be noble and help the others. Three other refugees, who Yani did assist later in Houston, appear one by one in the aisle and tell their stories in brief arias.
John (baritone Carlton Ford), is a "lost boy" from the Sudan's civil wars. A new language and culture are problems, but Yani gives him her three life lessons: (1) most men don't want women to tell them what to do, so you have to change that; (2) we refugees have to get into the system, i.e., do anything until you get the job you want; (3) remember to eat. With Yani's kindly push, John finds Houston a land of opportunity. "Remember," Keo reminds him in a rousing rush of music, "pass it on."
Iris (soprano Katherine Jolly) is a Nigerian orphan, a refugee who witnessed her mother being hanged during that country's constant turmoil. She wants to start a school in her memory. Her "My Dream" is one of the work's high points, bitter and sweet in its telling as Iris remembers her crusading mother, protesting, "brave like thunder." Her students, blossoming, will be flowers, in one of Filloux's most fragrant phrases.
Khem (tenor Peter Tran), arrives homeless and angry from Bhutan, where his father's land has been appropriated by the king. Full of rage, his arietta is a tormented plea to get back home and seek vengeance. Colors fill the libretto; here it's vermillion, the color of Khem's Hindu headband and also the color of blood. "If I slice in," he wails, "it will be so beautiful, the color vermillion." Yani calms him with visions of a garden, like those tended by his native Nepalese, and wins him over, assuaging his anger. "When I help you," she sings plaintively, "I can live."
All this is set to Glover's earnestly modern music, spiky and agitated even when calm. There's no aural difference between angst and peace, although the string quartet with percussion is skillfully managed under maestro Timothy Myers. The score certainly demands another hearing to appreciate fully, but there's a disconcerting disconnect between story and music.
The coup in this work is Glover's use of Cambodian "smot," native Buddhist chant that was completely obliterated under the Kymer Rouge. Singer Phoeun Srey Peou, a teacher of this form of chanting, sits demure at stage right and begins the work with the appropriate classic "Orphan's Lament," a threnody to a dead mother, filled with anguish and never-ending pain: "In this life I'm all alone with no one to care for me... alone I burn in agony; what misery, day after day." It's the appropriate start for Yani's journey through hell and back again triumphant. At the end, she plaintively sings the "Lotus Flower Offering," the prayer of transformation and enlightenment: "May all that I wish for come true." Throughout the piece, Ms. Peou walks through the plane's aisle set, her placid chanting interwoven with Glover's more jagged harmonies. This undercurrent of east and west is the stuff of real drama, and I wish there were more of it. Ending the opera with the Offering bestows true benediction onto the work, onto the three refugees, and onto our heroine Ms. Keo.
Kinoshita, who has sung under the baton of international maestros Seiji Ozawa and Lorin Maazel, is a revelation with her rich, sonorous voice. As a character, she doesn't have much to do or obstacles to overcome -- at least as detailed in Filloux's overly poetic libretto -- so we are left with her voice to lead us onward. She sounds like a crusader, marching through the concrete shell of the Baker Ripley Neighborhood Center with a warm, plangent dramatic tone that says, Here's a pro. The other singers acquit themselves admirably, but their roles are types, not people. At least Tran, as hothead Khem, gets to knock over some chairs to show some needed emotion.
Who wouldn't want an opera about their life? The life work of Yani Rose Keo needs no benediction, of course. Magnanimously, she continues to do a hero's labor for all those lost and troubled souls without a country. The gentle, unassuming Ms. Keo needs no opera to buoy her unflagging spirits or to sanction her ceaseless, selfless work, but I wish this one had been better, for her sake. Verdi would've known what to do with her.
John Glover and Catherine Filloux's opera inspired by Ms. Keo plays at various venues around the city. Next up: Sunday, June 17, 4 p.m. at the Rothko Chapel, 3900 Yupon; Tuesday, June 19, 7 p.m. in a return engagement at the Baker Ripley Neighborhood Center, 6500 Rookin; Friday, June 22, 7:30 p.m. at the Asia Society Texas, 1370 Southmore Blvd; and Saturday, June 23, 2 p.m. at the Asia Society. For more information, call 713-546-0230 or visit houstongrandopera.org/HGOco. All performances are free. The performances at the Asia Society require reservations. Asian music scholar Trent Walker will appear immediately after the Asia Society performances. Musicologist Roger Wood will join him on June 23.