New opera puts dark part of Tacoma’s past center stage
A serene waterfront park along Commencement Bay in Tacoma, Wash., is dedicated to remembering a horrific episode in the history of the city.
In 1885, a mob made up of hundreds of white citizens — led by Tacoma’s mayor — drove hundreds of Chinese residents from the city. They then stood and watched as homes and businesses belonging to those residents burned to the ground.
A new opera exploring this chapter of the city’s history makes its debut this week.
Tacoma’s forcible expulsion of Chinese residents – over fears that they were taking jobs from white people – became so well known, other cities looking to copy it began to call it "the Tacoma Method.”
But composer Greg Youtz says for more than a century after it happened, many people who live in the region had no idea it took place.
“This piece of Tacoma's history was deliberately erased and has only really started coming back into the light in the last 25 years or so,” Youtz said.
It was for this reason that Youtz, a longtime music professor at Pacific Lutheran University, decided to create an opera about it.
And it was not lost on him that one of the first times this angry mob got together to sketch out its plans, was at the Alpha Opera House.
“That's a glorious title for what was in fact a small wooden building,” Youtz said. “Nonetheless, it was Tacoma's biggest, and for a while only, real meeting place. And so it was used during the entire year of 1885 for a series of meetings”
When Youtz and the opera’s librettist, Beijing-born poet Zhang Er started work on the opera they didn’t have many first-hand accounts of what Tacoma’s Chinese residents experienced. Largely because most were no longer around after the expulsion to tell their stories.
Zhang said she really wanted to read about what happened, in their words.
“It's essential,” said Zhang. “I couldn't have an opera, I don't think I have an anchor to tell a story without that personal account [and] the individual voices”
Although some of the perpetrators of the expulsion would later stand trial, no one was ever convicted.
But the trial did include testimony from one of the Chinese-American merchants, whose family was driven out.
“His wife went mad on that day. And so that for me, all of a sudden I got the emotional core,” said Zhang.
The opera’s cast includes characters portraying this merchant’s family, white workers, union organizers and the city’s mayor at the time.
Zhang said these voices will help opera goers understand what the experience was like — both for those being driven from their homes and for those who were swept up in anti-Chinese propaganda.
“They see themselves in both," Zhang said. “I can understand the Chinese mother trying to protect her children. Then I can understand why workmen would be following the leader like the mayor.”
She says the opera is a “powerful” way to teach about the past.
“The story is still relevant today because we're still facing the challenges," said Zhang. “When they meet someone who looks different, has different food, keeps different hair, wears different costumes or has a different religion.”
In 1994, the Chinese Reconciliation Project Foundation was formed in Tacoma to help the city confront this part of its past.
Youtz is a member of the foundation’s executive board. He’s studied and played Chinese music for years and immersed himself in the story of the Tacoma Method.
The Tacoma Method premiers Friday, March 31, and runs through this weekend at the Rialto Theater in Tacoma.
Youtz said he hopes the opera will resonate with audiences.
“I hope they walk away really moved by Zhang Er's story and characters, and of course my music, and go out and think about themselves in the world and what we have to learn from this episode in history,” said Youtz.
“But of course, the other thing I hope is that people walk away thinking, ‘Wow, I need to go see more opera.”