Author Kao Kalia Yang’s father has been a farmer, a refugee, a machinist. But in a book about his life, Yang elevated his true vocation — poet.
Soon, his story will be an opera.
The Minnesota Opera announced Monday that it’s creating a youth opera based on “The Song Poet,” Yang’s acclaimed 2017 memoir about her father, Bee Yang, who composed and sang songs about life and politics, love and family.
It’s the first time a Hmong story will be translated to the operatic stage, Yang said.
“I wrote the ‘Song Poet’ knowing my father’s story was the stuff of great art,” the St. Paul writer said by phone.
The book follows a young boy whose father dies, who grows up in a warn-torn country, who tries to find the place his father was buried. The tale begins in Laos, moves to a refugee camp in Thailand, then makes its way to Minnesota. “This is incredibly operatic,” she said, “dramatic and beautiful.”
For its Project Opera, a youth vocal training program, the Minnesota Opera is scouting for stories that connect with young audiences and reflect the Twin Cities community, said Jamie Andrews, the company’s chief learning officer. When he sat down with “The Song Poet,” he knew it would make an incredible opera.
“Kalia’s writing is just so lyrical and beautiful — so singable,” Andrews said. “I instantly knew this was it.”
The Minnesota Opera is nationally known for launching new works. “The Song Poet” becomes the third opera commissioned for Project Opera, which will premiere it at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis in 2021. Theater Mu founder Rick Shiomi will direct. New York City composer Nkeiru Okoye will write the score. Okoye and Minnesota playwright and performer Katie Ka Vang will pen the libretto.
Crafting this opera, the team must “proceed very carefully,” Yang said. She knows of just one Hmong trained opera singer, and there are few Hmong kids studying the form.
How can this story be staged in a way that accurately reflects Hmong culture? she wonders. “How do you do this without going to ‘yellow face?’ [casting a white performer in an Asian role]. How do you do this honoring the heart and the home that has built me?
“We’re making history. I’m cognizant of this. So there are many things running through my head. But I think I listened to what was in my heart. And that was the opportunity to see my father’s story translated onto the stage, something that neither he nor I ever dared to dream of.”
Bee Yang has performed traditional song poetry, or kwv txhiaj, since he was 12 years old, becoming a keeper of Hmong history. “When I began singing song poetry I discovered I could share our stories of hurt and sorrow, of missing and despair, of anger and betrayal,” he said in the book.
This daughter’s telling of his story — and how it shaped her own — won the Minnesota Book Award for memoir and creative nonfiction. The 39-year-old author and Harding High School graduate is best known for her 2008 book “The LateHomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir,” which nabbed two Minnesota Book Awards. After graduating from Carleton College, Yang earned an MFA in creative nonfiction at Columbia University.
The Minnesota Opera plans to bring “The Song Poet” to other stages, Andrews said. “Do we go over to Harding High School? Or to St. Paul? Elsewhere in Minnesota?” With plans for a small cast and limited technical demands, he said “the piece is being constructed in a way that hopefully other groups can pick it up and perform it.”
To ensure that the cast is diverse, the opera company will reach into the Hmong-American community, Andrews said. It’s working with the Saint Paul Music Academy and talking with Theater Mu, an Asian-American troupe. “It’s not just a Hmong cast,” Andrews said. “But we’re doing some strategies already now for 2021, to build those connections and find those kids.”
Yang can’t wait for Hmong young people to see the opera.
When Yang was young, she took the occasional field trip to the Ordway or the Guthrie. “You’d go in knowing that you’d be entering into a different culture,” she said. “I couldn’t have imagined, as a child, walking into a place and seeing something from the Hmong story represented.
“I hope that for those young Hmong people who get to see this, it opens up possibilities for them. Not just Hmong — but all refugee children... I want them to understand that we can make history, too. That it doesn’t have to be very big or very loud to be very important.”