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New opera ‘Tacoma Method’ will tell the story of a dark chapter in the city’s history

The Tacoma Method. It’s an innocuous phrase for one of the ugliest acts in the city’s history. A day when a mob inflamed by the city’s leaders — including the forebears of this newspaper — pushed out 700 of its Chinese residents and burned the city’s Chinatown to the ground.

Now, it’s an opera.

“Tacoma Method” premieres March 31 at the Rialto Theatre in Tacoma. Through music and story it brings to life the darkest days of the city’s history. The Tacoma Opera production was composed by Gregory Youtz. Chinese American poet Zhang Er wrote the story and lyrics.

Director Barry Johnson calls the opera heartfelt.

“The audience is going to go through an emotional roller coaster,” Johnson said. “Because it follows the plight of this family. And we fall in love with them early on.”

The story follows the Mays, a Chinese American family and business owners living in Tacoma.

“By the end, they’re thrown out,” Johnson said. “They’re expelled, and the audience is going to go through that rejection and know that it came from Tacoma. It wasn’t anybody who’s alive now. But the theme of racism and exclusion is still present in our society.”

Unjust as it was, the Tacoma Method was so successful that other U.S. cities later used it to expel their Chinese populations. In 2010, the Chinese Reconciliation Park was built on the city’s waterfront as both a reminder and a healing gesture to the injustices of the past.

Composer and librettist

Youtz, a music professor at Pacific Lutheran University, has taught Chinese art courses and studied Chinese music, including opera, for 30 years.

“A lot of my composing has been influenced by all that,” he said.

When former Tacoma Opera artistic director Noel Koran heard the story about the Tacoma Method, he thought it might make an opera and approached Youtz about a decade ago. But plans fizzled and the idea was shelved. Until Youtz pitched it to Zhang.

Zhang, a biomedical science professor at The Evergreen State College in Tacoma, grew up in Beijing hearing the heroic tales of Chinese laborers building railroads in the western United States. The darker side, the racism and expulsion of those same Chinese after their work was completed, was left out, she said.

“Even though I’m Chinese, I have no direct connections with the people who were expelled,” she said. She hadn’t even heard of the Tacoma Method until Youtz told her about it.

Zhang is a Renaissance woman. Trained in pharmacology, she is also an internationally published poet.

“Which is the only reason I would do something like this,” Youtz said of the decision to tell the story artistically. “If I didn’t have a serious pro involved, I wouldn’t touch this.”

Eye witnesses

Mr. and Mrs. May were real people. Zhang found court records that documented Mr. May’s testimony of the expulsion and how it drove his wife to mental illness.

“The people have to first know the Chinese community in the first act ... children and wives and husbands and their aspiration for the New Year’s celebration,” she said. The audience also gets to know the white characters in the first act. Those same people will become villains and heroes in the second act.

In the court records, Zhang saw that the Chinese residents were surprised, angered and indignant over their treatment.

“The Chinese community is very shocked what happens because we’ve been here for longer than most of the people who tried to get rid of us,” Zhang said.

Staging

“Tacoma Method” begins with a prelude that includes historical images of Tacoma. Act One opens before dawn on the Lunar New Year in the city’s Chinatown.

“People are waiting. They’re getting the kids ready. So it’s a happy time,” Youtz said.

The four principal Chinese characters, Mr. and Mrs. May and Mr. and Mrs. Lee, talk for the audience’s benefit about business, children, the troubles with growing white intimidation.

“But they promised they’re going to put on one heck of a banquet,” Youtz said.

The white characters are introduced to the audience during the banquet scene. It’s also where the music resembles what Youtz describes as, grumbling.

“And that turns into kind of chaos,” he said.

Second act

In reality, a series of meetings about the Chinese were held in 1885. White politicians and civic leaders stirred anti-Chinese sentiment by portraying them as competitors for jobs. For the opera, Youtz and Zhang compressed the meetings into one held at Tacoma’s Alpha Opera House.

“So we have a big meeting in which everybody stands up and sort of has their say, both anti-Chinese and pro-Chinese,” Youtz said.

As they did in real life, Puyallup pioneer Ezra Meeker and Catholic priest Father Peter Hylebos make appearances in the opera in support of the Chinese. Mayor Jacob Weisbach leads the opposition.

“Plans are made. The mob forms. Arias are sung,” Youtz said. “ ‘Am I going to stay? Am I going to go?’ Then finally, we reach the mad scene where the the mob reaches the Mays’ house.”

The opera ends with Mrs. May, played PLU music professor Soon Cho, cursing Tacoma.

“‘You will never rise until my story is told’. And so, I’m telling the story,” Youtz said.

Bringing it to life

In 2017, Youtz and Zhang penned two arias and presented them at a civil-rights event that year. Down time during the pandemic allowed them to finish the first draft.

Along with more time to create, the pandemic brought a sense of urgency to the story. Anti-Asian incidents and increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric across the United States motivated the duo to finish it.

“When we started, (it was) like a historical lesson and then, perhaps because all the debate on immigration, it’s really become so relevant,” Zhang said.

After the Tacoma Opera’s board gave the go-ahead to produce “Tacoma Method”, fundraising began. The opera has received support from Symphony Tacoma, the Tacoma Historical Society and the Chinese Reconciliation Project.

The music

Youtz’s score reflects both white pioneer and Chinese cultures, he said.

“There are some actual (American) folk tunes in there, as well as me sounding folk tuneish,” he said. “And then there’s Chinese influence in there.”

Opera singers Suchan Kim (left) and Soon Cho perform during a rehearsal for the production of “Tacoma Method” at the Christ Episcopal Church in Tacoma, Washington, on Thursday, March 16, 2023.
Opera singers Suchan Kim (left) and Soon Cho perform during a rehearsal for the production of “Tacoma Method” at the Christ Episcopal Church in Tacoma, Washington, on Thursday, March 16, 2023.

Youtz wanted actual Chinese musical instruments, like a bamboo mouth organ and a hammer dulcimer, for the Asian influences but had to settle for a synthesizer. Banjos and guitars in the score can sound like either 1800s Americana or Chinese, depending on how they’re played, he said.

Libretto

Zhang intended the opera’s libretto to reflect the lives that Tacoma’s Chinese citizens led in 1885.

“I’m trying to imagine these people’s experience and emotion at that time,” she said.

She incorporated actual testimony from the investigations that followed the expulsion. She tried to be realistic without inserting her own opinions.

“A good bit of the libretto that the white people are saying is directly out of written sources, newspapers, books that were written later,” Youtz said. “Ezra Meeker published a statement in the newspaper.”

Tacoma newspapers were supportive of the efforts to remove the Chinese.

“The papers are still cooking up the Chinese question here,” Tacoma banker and post master John C. Weatherred wrote in his diary in 1885. “The Ledger is cooling off. The News is still acting the fool, abusing everybody that may differ with them on the question. They seem to have a special spite against Rev. McFarland & Ezra Meeker — in fact anybody who differs.”

The mayor

Zhang calls Mayor Weisbach a complicated figure — a politician who says what he needs to get public support but doesn’t necessarily believe what he’s saying.

“He’s using it as a way to get attention, get support from the (white) laborers,” she said. “He traveled around. He went to China, he’s not an idiot. He needs the power and control to get support.”

Tenor Robert McPherson plays Weisbach. He was born in Seattle, raised in Federal Way and went to school at the University of Puget Sound.

“I’m as local yokel as they come,” he said. Still, he’d never heard of the Chinese expulsion before being cast in “Tacoma Method”.

“It’s kind of a blind spot that we all have as as Tacoma residents,” he said.

In the opera, as he was in real life, the mayor is the mover behind the movement.

“I don’t think he sees himself as a villain,” McPherson said. “There’s some things he says and does that, as a Scots-Irish-Filipino, is a little hard for me, because my mom was from Manila. I want to be as authentic to the character as possible and to show him to be a three dimensional character who’s making very bad choices.”

Entertainment

Despite the heavy content, director Johnson said “Tacoma Method” is like any another opera. The primary mission is to entertain.

“An opera is music and beautiful singing,” said Johnson, a veteran singer and director with both Tacoma Opera and Seattle Opera. “We have all of that. And it’s relationships. It’s characters that the audience gets to know.”

For conductor James Brown, there are both challenges and opportunities when forging a new opera without previous recordings or performances to draw from.

“We’re creating the tradition in real time, which is quite exciting,” Brown said. “We have the benefit of being able to ask the composer what his intention was in certain cases, whether it’s tempo or dynamics or articulation.”

Characters

Suchan Kim, a Korean-born baritone living in New Jersey, plays Mr. May. Opera allows him to express himself, he said, and this one has the added benefit of bringing history to life.

Kim has performed in other Asian-themed operas like Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and the contemporary “Both Eyes Open” about the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. To him, opera is art and “Tacoma Method” is no different. But it does differ from many operas.

“I can say it’s not a tragedy,” he said of “Tacoma Method”. “No one dies. But, the Chinese men basically lose everything they have built.”

San Francisco-based Kyle Tingzon, a countertenor, plays Hylebos. Tingzon calls Hylebos the voice of reason in the opera. The events may be 138 years in the past, but the story is very much contemporary, he said.

“It is a dark point in the history of the city,” Tingzon said. “There’s a lot of division going on in the country right now. And I think that acknowledging that these events happened, and I would say that are still happening with a lot of anti-Asian rhetoric, I think this opera couldn’t have come at a better time.”

If you go

What: World premier of “Tacoma Method”.

Who: Tacoma Opera.

When: 7 p.m. March 31 and April 1, 2 p.m. April 2.

Where: Rialto Theatre, 310 S. 9th St., Tacoma.

Tickets: $37.50-$127.50, ticketmaster.com/tacoma-opera-tickets/artist/2919128

Information: tacomaopera.org, 253-591-5894