Opera premiere in Boston’s Chinatown explores family and the ‘other world’
Your idea of opera is about to get turned on its head this weekend at the Pao Arts Center in Chinatown. A new show called HER | alive.un.dead is a surreal and experimental show with projections on stage in an intimate space where everyone has a front seat.
The show’s composer is named Emily Koh. She’s a Singaporean-Chinese-Peranakan immigrant to the US, whose latest work will be premiering with four performances at the Pao May 14-16.
For the last decade, Koh said, she’s been focusing on microtonal work: Honing in on the notes that live between regular piano notes.
“Some instruments can do that and others can’t,” she said. “But I’ve been trying to explore the idea of neutral intervals that can be moved around and interpreted differently. Because if we hear a major third, it sounds happy. We hear a minor third, it sounds sad. And a neutral interval sits right in between that.”
That neutrality, she said, is something she’s interested in exploring. Koh typically bases her works around specific topics or themes, but wants audiences to listen and interpret those themes themselves, she said.
“It’s more of like a ‘sit and listen and then explore in your own way’ sort of music,” Koh said. “I don’t really want to push a certain agenda. It’s just something that I would like people to have some time to sit down and think about.”
HER | alive.un.dead is about three generations of Asian women who interact in a space called the in-between. They explore their own relationships, life and death, and themes of discrimination, racism, and sexism.
“There is a narrative, but because of the way I like to think about things, the narrative is usually not direct,” Koh said. “So in this opera, we are showing things in a non-linear fashion so that audiences can put together that linear narrative on their own. And depending on how they do that, they might have a different experience.”
The title, HER | alive.un.dead, “doesn’t really show or tell you much about the opera, but hints at some sort of like life in between, living and death,” she said.
That in-between space is where a lot of the storytelling in the opera happens, Koh said.
“Two women meet in the place we call the in-between and kind of talk about their experiences in life, how they got there,” Koh said. “And then eventually find out that they’re blood-related and that they’re mother and daughter. And after that knowing moment, we go back to the real world where we see the grief and the change and thoughts of their parents, and how they have to learn from losing two daughters.”
In one scene, the two women meet for the first time in the in-between and are trying to parse where they are, and why only the two of them are there.
“If we think of it, if you are dead and you go to heaven, you might expect to see other people there,” Koh said. “But here in this in-between, the middle space, there’s just these two people and they need to almost figure out why they’re there together, and maybe that would be the way to get out of it.”
The opera is “spooky-sounding,” Koh said, with extended notes, microtonal sounds, and the sounds of people chanting, though the audience can’t see them.
Its run at the Pao Arts Center in Boston’s Chinatown is meaningful, Koh said.
“It is so heartwarming to hear that the opera was going to be performed and premiere at the Pao,” she said. “This is where we can celebrate the arts of Asian American people and artists.”
Koh said she hopes the next generation of Asian American composers, musicians, and artists can find ways to blend their interests and culture through their work.
“Explore what you want to do and think about ways that represent yourself the best,” she said. “And the only way to do that is to try to fail and to do it again. And when we do it enough, it’ll become the norm. It will become acceptable. It’ll be something that other people can follow.”