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St. Paul author Kao Kalia Yang adapts book into first Hmong opera

Kao Kalia Yang adapts memoir into first Hmong opera
Kao Kalia Yang adapts memoir into first Hmong opera 07:46

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. -- Kao Kalia Yang's memoir, "The Song Poet", has been adapted as the first ever Hmong opera in the Minnesota Opera's 60-year history. 

Yang is a Minnesota native whose family emigrated to the Twin Cities during the Vietnam War"The Song Poet" is a dual memoir that details the perseverance and resilience of Yang's father, Bee, as he led his family from a war-stricken Thai jungle to St. Paul's east side, as well as Yang's personal experiences during this turbulent transition. 

"I know that in this country and in the literary tradition, memoir belongs to the realm of the rich and famous; people who have lived illustrious lives and everyone wants to know, 'what happened, and how were they made?' I knew I was already pushing the edges of the genre," says Yang.

The operatic adaption stays true-to-form, encapsulating the perspective of all the Yang family members throughout their journey to America.

Beginning in the jungles of Thailand, the opera details the Yangs' journey as they're displaced from their Hmong village and forced into a refugee camp, before emigrating to Minnesota in the early 1980's.

Despite the turmoil around them, Bee Yang refused to lose hope. To keep morale up, he sang traditional Hmong song poems to Kao Kalia Yang and her siblings. These songs were then adapted for stage by the show's composer, Jocelyn Hagen.

"What I really latched onto in the libretto is that he is surrounded by strong women, and I loved that. That, I could really, really relate too," says Hagen, "that was my big buy in. That's how I really enveloped myself in it, was those women."

"The Song Poet" was originally commissioned to be a youth performance, but the civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd caused the creative minds behind this project to re-evaluate the needs of their audience.

Yang said this about the change, "Arts organizations began asking, 'what kind of stories do we need in the world right now?'"

Followed by, "The truth is, we live in a world that's creating more and more refugees every day, despite the cries for peace. The refugee story is always, always of humanity."

This show is already gaining a lot of attention. Aside from being the first ever Hmong opera, it is also the first opera where the composer and librettist are women.

When asked about the huge milestone, Yang said, "The fact that I get to stand here, to sit here, to travel this journey with Jocelyn Hagen, is incredible. But I know so many others have tried…for us to get here."

She continued with, "You feel a little bit humbled but also like you belong to a bigger history."

Hagen followed by saying, "This is a story that a lot of people want to hear, it's really relevant to now, and the fact that it has two women telling the story, I think, is an incredible part of it."

Tickets are currently sold out for the show's two-week run, but you can find more information about future performances by going to Minnesota Opera's website

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