Town Hall Seattle was packed last weekend for the world premiere of Heron and the Salmon Girl. Geared for kids, satisfying for grownups, this first of three new half-hour operas — which comprise a cycle called “Our Earth,” commissioned by Seattle Opera, with Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra — promises to refresh our region’s musical tastes and reinforce local history and values.
In Irene Kelleher’s smart libretto, Heron, the magnificent storyteller, first talks. She teaches the audience how to say her name, and others, in the region’s native language.
Heron (soprano Sonia Perez, at once regal and loving) is waiting for food — salmon. They are missing. Something is wrong with the ancient cycle that brings them back every year. Finding out what’s up, and heading off to fix it, sets in motion the story of this opera and the ones to follow.
Keliher and composer Eric Banks crafted a kid-friendly overture: as the gentle string music finally slips in, Heron sings of being patient. She waits, as herons do (and, of course, as audiences at a concert must learn to do, too).
She rises above a scene-stealing orca and a worldly-wise turtle. She mentors Salmon Girl, who searches for her missing brother. Where have all the salmon gone? In her human form, Salmon Girl must help find the answer.
Rachel DeShon’s high, clear soprano as the energetic, anxious Salmon Girl balances Heron’s lower-pitched, comforting sound. As Salmon Girl transforms from person to fish and back again, she braves a towering fisherman, a storm, and the emotions of discovering her long-lost brother in a most unlikely place: Seattle.
Salmon Girl and many a little girl in the audience will need courage and guts. For this, Heron is a great role model.
Banks has crafted sweeping music that suggests the Pacific Rim and its waters with mallet instruments, wavelike rhythms, and open harmonies. SYSO’s woodwinds and brass get a workout. The music gives ample room for the big grownup voices from Seattle Opera, and for the pleasures of 50 or so children’s voices of Seattle Opera’s Youth Chorus, the lively blue-green wave-makers who grow calm, at last, at story’s end. The set is a simple (and easy to transport) stage flats that evokes Japanese water imagery as well as the Seattle skyline. Costumes are simple, too: a jacket and headgear go a long way toward creating a character.
A kid-friendly introduction by Nature Conservancy scientist James Schroeder, who consulted on the project, gave the audience a chance to test their knowledge of the Pacific Northwest, its rivers and its salmon. His presence was a reminder that this piece of art will travel well to schools around the region, where local children will rotate in as choristers, and where science teachers will discover that opera can be their friend.
To see more of Our Earth
Part 2 of Our Earth, “Rushing Upriver” premieres as part of Earth Day, April 20, at Seattle Center.
Part 3, “Every River Has its People” premieres August 1 at Seattle Youth Symphony’s annual Marrowstone Music Festival in Bellingham, with its Seattle premiere August 3 at McCaw Hall, Seattle Opera’s home.
Seattle Opera is making Our Earth its Opera-Goes-to-School show for the coming two years. More info for interested schools from Barbara Lynne Jamison at 206-676-5564 or Barbara.Jamison@SeattleOpera.org.
About the author: Seattle writer Gigi Yellen explores music wherever and whenever she can.