Putting words to music


Ramona Luengen's piano is an upright Heintzman, walnut-coloured. Her parents bought it when she was six, which was around the time she started begging for lessons. They paid it off, month by month, with her baby-bonus cheques. It's been her workbench for almost 40 years, but there are no visible scars or gouges; no mug-ring souvenirs of overlooked coasters. None of the keys is fissured or chipped.

"Some composers work at a desk, but I begin here," she says. She positions her chair at the keyboard; there is a bench, but it's piled high with scores. "I begin by diddling around, improvising, trying to find the colours. Sorry about the tuning," she says, and plays the chords-transparent and ever so slightly Asian-sounding-that sustain this text:

"Listen. Mukashi-a long time ago-well, maybe not so long ago-lived a boy and a girl, in a house, in a city called Vancouver, in a country called Canada. They lived with their parents and they did what kids do. They played. They laughed. They teased each other. They climbed a giant cherry tree. The little boy loved music and the little girl loved stories. Listen. This is their story, in words and song."

That simple, declarative prologue sets the scene for Naomi's Road, Ramona Luengen's first opera. The libretto is by Ann Hodges. She adapted it from the novel of the same name, by Joy Kogawa. Commissioned by Vancouver Opera for their Opera in the Schools program, Naomi's Road will have three public performances this weekend (September 30 to October 2) at the Norman Rothstein Theatre. Then, the cast of four Asian-Canadian singers will begin their province-wide tour. School gymnasiums and 8 in the morning: an unholy alliance if ever you cared to name one.

The original property-Naomi's Road, the book-was Kogawa's adaptation for children of the celebrated novel Obasan. Based on her own family's experience in internment camps, it was the chosen title this past spring in the Vancouver Public Library's One Book, One Vancouver initiative-a yearlong series of talks and events aimed at bringing literary works alive. Originally published in 1986, Naomi's Road was re-released this year in a revised version, to coincide with the library's campaign. All told, it's a story that's been more than usually susceptible to reworking. A measure of its fortitude is that it hasn't been diminished, certainly not by its opera incarnation. Far from it. Rigorously workshopped to a tight 45 minutes, it's fast-paced and action-packed, in no way cute, and with nothing that suggests compromise.

"I made conscious decisions not to write pseudo-Japanese music, and not to write down," says Luengen. "It's relatively tonal, but there are dramatic moments that are operatic in style and certainly don't sound like they were written for children. Why should they? Children are intelligent and getting smarter all the time. They don't want pansy music. So we challenge them. It's not necessarily easy at first listening. Of course, there are moments that are childlike, such as when they're singing childhood songs."

She plays a simple melody that has the sweet and chalky waft of Sunday school about it.

"Just after we'd settled on the project, we learned that Joy was giving a reading in her old house, in Marpole. A bunch of us went over. She made mention of the cherry tree behind the house, how important it was to her, gnarled and wounded but still there. And at the end of the reading, she passed around the farewell song they all sang when people left. It's a beautiful tune, a hymn tune, and she asked everyone to sing. It was incredibly moving, and that-" she plays the Sunday-school song again-"was it. So, of course we found a way to use it in the opera. Also the tree."

That reading took place during a strange, transitional time in the house's history. As Joy Kogawa tells it, in 2003, when Mars and Earth were in close proximity, she happened to be passing through her old neighbourhood and saw that her family home was for sale. For a while, a group worked to raise money to buy it and preserve it as a literary heritage site. That wasn't to be, but Kogawa, who divides her time between Vancouver and Toronto, still comes by to visit the cherry tree-old now, and radically pruned back. It grows at the back of the house, at the lane's edge. I met her there last week on what happened to be the day before Jim Green advanced a resolution in city council that a cutting from the cherry be planted on the grounds at City Hall.

"I come here," she said, "and have a little conversation with the tree."

Asked what she tells it, she answers: "That I love it. When I was a little girl, one of my early memories was hanging like a monkey on the lower branch. I know that all of us have these things that take us back to when we were children; to a time of great tenderness when we were vulnerable and open. They become places of pilgrimage for us, places of holiness. And this is my spot."

The future of the house is uncertain and it doesn't look so good for that tree. But its transplanted offspring, properly tended, will prosper and become another incarnation of Joy Kogawa's story; another vessel for the porting of its essential message-that there is evil in the world but that friendship is also a road worth travelling. It is, after all, Naomi's road, and so far it's brought writer to reader to composer to librettist to singer to audience. It looks fit for going on.

"How does it end?" I ask.

"Like this," says Ramona Luengen, turning her score to its final page, and to these words: "We'll always carry with us these three things. Gift of music. Gift of words. Gift of love."