For three generations, a Jewish family in Vancouver and a family in Japan have shared a deep bond, It was established through a diplomat’s deeply moral and courageous act.
In 1940, Chiune Sugihara was the Japanese government’s vice-consul in Kaunus, Lithuania. Over the previous year, thousands of Polish Jews had fled to this Baltic country following the Nazi invasion of Poland. Hundreds of Jews, both Polish and Lithuanian, gathered daily outside the Japanese consulate in Kaunus, seeking an exit visa to flee the country.
Among them were Natek and Zosia (later called Nathan and Susan) Bluman.
Sugihara handed out more than two thousand visas—even though his government was formally allied with Nazi Germany. As a result, the Blumans managed to reach Japan in February of 1941 before travelling several months later by sea across the Pacific Ocean to Vancouver, where they raised their family.
Had Sugihara not taken this action, the Blumans and many others would likely have been murdered. That’s because Lithuania, which Hitler subsequently invaded, had the highest Jewish death rate of all countries occupied by the Nazis.
Natek and Zosia’s daughter, Barbara Bluman, later wrote a book about her parents escape called I Have My Mother’s Eyes. Sadly, she died in 2001 after contracting cancer, and her daughter, Danielle, completed it.
This month, Vancouver composer Rita Ueda will unveil her new chamber opera bringing this story to the stage. I Have My Mother’s Eyes: A Holocaust Memoir Across Generations will be performed at the Chutzpah! Festival.
“It’s based on the story of the family, but it’s not an adaptation of the book,” Ueda, a Japanese Canadian, tells Pancouver over Zoom.
Ueda impressed by Sugihara’s moral courage
Ueda visited the Sugihara family in Japan as part of her research. She was accompanied by Megumi Masaki, director of music at the Banff Centre, who is the chamber opera’s pianist and narrator.
“Sugihara was a person with a very strong sense of morality,” Ueda emphasizes. “And this was also guided by his family. So, in the opera, you’ll see a moment where Sugihara’s son, at age six, looks out the window from his house and sees the unending lineup of Jewish families and children.
“He sees the children in that lineup who are his age,” the composer continues. “They’re looking extremely tired and hungry. So he went to his father, Sugihara, and said, ‘What’s going to happen if you don’t help them, dad?’ ”
According to Ueda, the father replies: “They’re probably going to die.”
In the opera, the boy urges his father to help them.
Of course, Ueda points out, Sugihara had many factors weighing on his mind. His government had not approved the issuing of visas. Foremost, he had to decide whether it was worth risking the safety of his family to save the people outside.
His wife, Yukiko, had given birth about three weeks earlier, plus Yukiko’s sister was visiting them in Kaunus.
“The easiest thing to save his job was not to do anything, but he decided to help,” Ueda states.
In fact, after Sugihara returned to Japan, he was fired from his job.
Ueda also spent time with Barbara Bluman’s brother George, a UBC professor emeritus of mathematics. She only realized after doing this research that Bluman was the first academic adviser to her brother, who’s also a mathematician.
Not a normal opera
The libretto was written by Vancouver resident Rodney Robertson, who’s currently teaching in Bahrain. Ueda says that the central characters are Zosia, performed by mezzo soprano Barbara Ebbeson, and Yukiko, performed by soprano Teiya Kasahara.
This intergenerational story will also have Ebbeson singing the roles of Zosia’s daughter Barbara and granddaughter Danielle. Kasahara will also sing the roles of Chiune Sugihara, his son Hiroki, and grandchild Miroki.
Ueda describes it as “structured improvisation” for good reason. Three of the six musicians will play Japanese instruments, which each have individualized music notation.
“You can’t really write western notation with time signature, key signature, and a conductor,” Ueda says. “The Japanese instruments are not designed for that kind of music-making. On the other hand, I can’t very well get the western players to play in Japanese notation.”
She advised the singers to think of the structure of the chamber opera as a “guide”.
“It’s really easy to get tied up with getting the notes right, getting the rhythm right,” Ueda says. “But really, the opera singer’s job is to deliver the emotional content.”
In addition to Masaki on piano, Canadians Marc Destrubé and Sungyong Lim will play western instruments. Destrubé is a violinist; Lim is a cellist.
They’ll be joined by Dutch-Japanese musician Naomi Sato on shō, which is a Japanese mouth organ; Japanese musician Reison Kuroda will play the shakuhachi, an end-blown flute made of bamboo; and Japanese Australian Miyama McQueen-Tokita will play koto, a lengthy plucked half-tube zither.
Heather Pawsey is directing I Have My Mother’s Eyes: A Holocaust Memoir Across Generations. Jennifer Tham will conduct the musicians.
“I’m an experimental composer; I’m not necessarily an operatic composer,” Ueda says. “This will not be a normal opera.”
Ueda drawn to positive stories
Last year, the Canada Council for the Arts awarded the 2022 Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music to Ueda for “As the First Spring Blossoms Awaken Through the Snow”. She also won the 2022 Azrieli Prize in Canadian Music, as well as the 2014 Penderecki International Competition for Young Composers.
During the interview with Pancouver, Ueda reveals that she likes to write operas with a specific goal in mind. For her, it’s important to find intercultural stories that offer a positive role model for how people can work together.
I Have My Mother’s Eyes: A Holocaust Memoir Across Generations fits into this pattern.
Another Ueda opera, One Thousand White Cranes for Japan, was inspired by a boy in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. He repeatedly folded paper cranes to raise funds to help Japanese victims of a 2011 tsunami.
Yet another production, Debris, was also inspired by the tsunami. She wrote it after approximately 200 tonnes of materials, including homes and personal possessions floated across the Pacific Ocean, washing up along the west coast of North America.
Ueda points out that many Indigenous communities, along with other B.C. residents, deliberately chose not to refer to this as “garbage”. Instead, they went through the debris searching for personal information so that items could be returned to their owners in Japan.
“I was really, really touched by this,” Ueda says. “I thought, ‘Well, you know, this is a really positive story.’ It speaks to who we are as Canadians.”
Composer Rita Ueda will premiere I Have My Mother’s Eyes: A Holocaust Memoir Across Generations at the Chutzpah! Festival in partnership with the Powell Street Festival Society. Directed by Heather Pawsey and presented with the participation of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, this chamber opera will be performed at 8 p.m. on November 18 and 19 at the Norman & Annette Rothstein Theatre. For more information and tickets, visit the Chutzpah! Festival website. It’s also being workshopped on Gabriola Island on November 11 and 12 at the Phoenix Auditorium.