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Seattle operetta follows Japanese American women trapped on both sides of WWII

caption: (From left to right) Composer Jeremy Berdin, librettist AC Petersen, and vocalists Caitlin Sarwono, Isabelle Bushue, and Sandra Waters.
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(From left to right) Composer Jeremy Berdin, librettist AC Petersen, and vocalists Caitlin Sarwono, Isabelle Bushue, and Sandra Waters.
Courtesy of AC Petersen

In 1942, Japanese American residents of Bainbridge Island were the first to be forced from their homes and taken to prison camps during World War II. Japanese Americans across the West Coast would soon follow, and children sent to Japan for school — known as Kibei — suddenly found themselves without access to their family, or any way to get home.

That separation is the focus of "Currents," a new operetta by local librettist AC Petersen and composer Jeremy Berdin.

"Currents" begins in 1937, when Bainbridge resident Mrs. Nakata sends her daughter Sumiko to Japan for schooling, while Sumiko's sister Emiko stays behind with their mother. Sumiko is 5 years old ahead of World War II. Once the conflict breaks out, she and other schoolgirls are forced to build paper balloon bombs in a local factory.

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"And Sumiko, the optimist that she is, is saying these are peace balloons," writer AC Petersen said at a rehearsal for the operetta's upcoming debut. "I'm going to write a message of peace, because these are going across the water."

Petersen said she first learned about the historical use of balloon bombs after narrating a book by Evelyn Iritani for the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library. Mrs. Nakata, Emiko, and Sumiko's plight — two trapped in a prison camp in the United States, the other trapped in a bomb factory in Japan — were inspired by real historical events, too.

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"I wrote the libretto with the intent of exposing the emotion that these three women might have felt at the time," Petersen said. "I call it impressionistic, because it's not really a history story."

The early stages of "Currents" took the form of a straight play — but the performance felt too much like the reciting of a history lesson, she said. After working with composer Jeremy Berdin, Petersen said the story began to have more presence and emotion.

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The operetta includes five songs charting the family's split journeys, and a longer iteration of the libretto will include a more "magical" conclusion to the women's story. The three principal characters are played by vocalists Caitlin Sarwono, Isabelle Bushue, and Sandra Waters.

Currents will be performed as part of the 2024 Spring Shot short performance festival at the 18th & Union arts space in Seattle. It runs from April 11 to 13.

Listen to the full Soundside story at a rehearsal for "Currents" by clicking play on the audio icon at the top of this story.

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