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First opera for Coast students

For most of the students gathered in the Raven's Cry Theatre last Sunday it was their very first live opera.

For most of the students gathered in the Raven's Cry Theatre last Sunday it was their very first live opera.The production of Naomi's Road, performed by a touring ensemble of the Vancouver Opera, was brought to the Coast through a collaboration between School District No. 46 and the SC Music Society. The show was offered free to kids courtesy of local sponsors. Elementary school students and some high school teens came from all points between Langdale and Madeira Park to hear the delightful voice of young Naomi played by soprano Jessica Cheung, and to see a cast of six, including pianist Angus Kellett, perform the 45-minute youth oriented opera.Young William Reed of Madeira Park, a piano student, enjoyed his first time at the opera, and even the musical Beckmyer siblings, Stephen and Holly, had never before heard a live performance of more than an operatic excerpt.After the show, the children and adults in the audience had a chance to ask questions of the cast."Is it a true story?" asked one girl of about Naomi's age. The answer is found in author Joy Kogawa's children's book, Naomi's Road, a version of her award-winning novel Obasan. The book is based on the author's own life; it follows the trials of Japanese Canadian Naomi during wartime who must pack her doll and her only possessions in two small suitcases and move with her brother and Obasan (her grandmother) far away from their Vancouver home to an internment camp in the B.C. Interior. To add to the heartache, her father is sent to another camp where he will wait out the war, while her mother who had gone to Japan for a visit, is not allowed to return. The children must deal with the loss of their beloved family, home and piano, harassment from the locals and their grandmother's silence borne of humiliation.When the war is over, there is still no relief. The government has sold their Vancouver home in their absence and the family must work on a sugar beet farm to stay together. (Recently, author Kogawa has succeeded with a well-publicized campaign in purchasing her former home in Vancouver that the family was forced to vacate during the war. She intends to use the heritage home for a writers' program.)The part of Stephen, Naomi's brother, was passionately performed by Sam Chung. But it is Gina Oh who shines, switching between many demanding roles as mother, grandmother and 11-year-old friend. Gene Wu plays the father and other roles. The all-Asian cast lends credibility to the story, but in fact, none are of Japanese heritage.The music, by Ramona Luengen, includes several poignant highlights: a farewell song taken from a traditional melody, and a moving rendition of O Canada sung by the children to prove to doubters that they are truly Canadian.The opera's librettist, Ann Hodges, recalls asking author Kogawa what she would like younger audiences to learn after watching the opera. Kogawa replied with a message of hope: "That there will always be war, but we can rescue each other. There is always giving and forgiveness. That war happens but despite that, children's gifts can survive."