I've been staring at a blank screen for the past ten minutes, trying to devise a clever opening sentence. It hasn't quite registered that Opera Camp is really over. So, for lack of a better introduction, I'll just start from Day 10.
First thing in the morning, we had special visitors who came to speak to us. Not one, not two, but ten Japanese-Americans came to speak to us about their internment camps experiences. Some of them even had been in Poston, the setting of our opera. We campers split up, the younger children going with five of our guests and the older campers going with the rest. Our guests took turns speaking, sharing their backstories and describing their lives in the camps. Their accounts really intrigued us. One of our guests explained how students took tests: they would go outside and write their answers in the sand. Another former internee had a father who fell ill. He had to be transported to another camp, so his family couldn't even visit him. He passed away among strangers. What struck me the most, though, is how one former internee persisted in calling the camps “concentration camps.” Sometimes, history seems very cold and distant, with facts, dates, and statistics. When I heard the personal accounts, though, I kept wondering what I would do if I had been there with them, and how I would feel. That's how the Japanese Internment became real.
After all five of our guests had spoken, they took questions from us. We had so much to ask that a few campers skipped break time to talk to them personally.
They then stayed to watch part of our rehearsal. Our instructors had to stop us multiple times to backtrack and redo. I started feeling nervous, knowing that the performance was only the next day. After that bump-through rehearsal, we ate lunch on the grass outside the theater. Unfortunately, some people got only around ten minutes to devour their food: they were calling us in group by group to get into costumes. My group, the White Group, got called last. We got the entire lunch period to eat. Cue evil chuckle.
Somehow, after lunch, we fit in time to run through the entire opera twice. For the first time, the full orchestra accompanied us, not just the piano. Some musical cues sounded different on the added instruments, throwing us off. Also, it was our first time running with costumes. We had no idea how rapid some of the changes are. During the riot scene, only about eight people emerged from the quick-change on time. Since the set movers hadn't arrived, a whole piece of the fence was missing. Still backstage struggling into costumes, none of the soldiers rushed to shove them back, so the small group of internees stood there awkwardly rocking back and forth, waving fists at nonexistent barbed wire and looking altogether quite ridiculous. Luckily, we sorted it out by the second run-through, and almost nobody missed cues.
We got to sleep in the next morning, as the call-time was a little after noon. Still, I woke up earlier than I would have. I had to sort out my hair. They had given us guidelines about 1940s styles, accompanied with example pictures. After looking through them, I came to the unfortunate conclusion that I'd have to curl my hair. I nearly screamed when I saw the result in the mirror, but I reminded myself that I was playing a part. Nobody cared what I really thought about my hair. Deciding that I would survive, I headed for the Barnsdall Gallery Theater.
As a group of us walked into the building, my heart jarred in my chest. That day was the invited dress rehearsal and the opening night performance. Remembering the previous day's mishaps, I began going into worst-case scenario mode. When we did our routine stretches and vocal warm-up, I started to calm down. Soon, our audience arrived. All went quiet backstage. Before I knew it, we launched into the performance.
We had rehearsed so many times that everything just flowed. The lines and the actions had become instinct. We hardly noticed the opera going by because it was all so natural.
There's nothing like the curtain call after a performance. We gave the audience our energy and they replied with focus and investment. The applause is when the silent communication, the unspoken dialogue, becomes physical.
An exhausting performance inevitably leaves one hungry. We all headed off to lunch at the loading dock, where they served us pizza and drinks. While we ate, our instructors gave us notes on things to improve. Performance #1 commenced afterward: the Opening Night performance. It grew even more fluid and intense than before. The audience rewarded us with a rush of applause.
It all ended around eight thirty. By the time we returned home, we pretty much straggled to our beds and collapsed. Besides, we had to rest well for the following two performances.
The next day followed a similar pattern as the first. It's funny how quickly it settled into a routine: curl hair, go to Barnsdall, warm up body, warm up voice, review some scenes, start performance. We poured out all the energy and emotion that we could. During lunch afterward, our director Eli told us that the opera was beginning to touch excellence. He explained that there is no such thing as perfection—there must always be something we can improve, a new aspect we can explore. Our final performance was approaching, and we had to make the leap to excellence.
I daresay, we did.
You know, I'll admit—because there are young children participating in the program, I thought that The White Bird of Poston was a kiddy show. Also, because of my lack of musical experience, I was so afraid of somehow “failing” Opera Camp that I listened to the recording literally three times a day. Well, it goes without saying that it was pretty much impossible for me to get a fresh perspective on the piece. Even throughout the program, though I admired the opera, and though we put so much work into it, I still kept on believing that everyone would see it as a children's piece. After the performances, though, I heard people marveling at the complexity of the music and the staging. Audience members enthusiastically praised the performance, pronouncing that all aspects of it were so professional that it could actually make profit. I'm definitely not an expert, so I don't know about that. What I do know, though, is that it's certainly not a kiddy show. Opera Camp has surprised me until the end.
After the last performance, when I hung up my costume for good, I felt surprisingly calm. It just wouldn't sink in that Opera Camp was over and that we had performed White Bird for the last time. I headed out to the loading dock with my friends. As a farewell present, each camper received a mounted group photograph and a copy of Camp Days by Chizuko Judy Sugita de Queiroz, signed by the author and illustrator herself. A while later, we all went out to the grass, munching on cake and cookies and chatting. Of course, the inevitable time came, and we all said our goodbyes.
Twelve days. Opera Camp was only twelve days total—less than two weeks. Somehow, the first day of Opera Camp, when I couldn't sing to save my life, seems geologic eons ago. And somehow, in the space of twelve days, we assembled a beautiful performance from scratch. I'm wandering into the mawkish and moralistic here, so I'd better conclude now, by saying this: during one of the final rehearsals, when we got a bit chatty and goofy, Eli sternly told us that we aren't here to have fun. We're here to be fulfilled by making art. Well, now that camp is over, do I feel fulfilled? Of course—I'm still slightly dazed. And don't tell Eli—but did I have a blast while I was at it? Oh, yes.