SMC Madison Project Moves Ahead With New Stage Production and Auditions for Youth Choir

The word on the street says that the city of Santa Monica and Santa Monica College will be making groundbreaking progress in their performing arts department with the Madison Project's new 540-seat performing arts hall and the production of "Manzanar: An American Story."

Construction of the performing arts hall started in January, with "Manzanar" moving ahead with its production - Saturday, the first of two open auditions were held for the Manzanar Youth Choir.

The Youth Choir under the direction of Niké St. Claire will perform alongside SMC's Chamber Choir in "Manzanar."

St. Claire, who heads SMC's choir and is a professional member of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, sat behind closed doors with young singers between the ages of 12 to 17 performing their best at songs such as the National Anthem, and a poetry/piano selection from the show.

"The music is complex and challenging for the kids, yet attainable," she said. "It's a beautiful poem."

Before the show opens the composer of the particular piece, Naomi Sekiya, one of show's three composers, will be joining an educational forum at SMC discussing "Manzanar."

The other composers include Jean-Pascal Beintus, whose recent commissions include a Grammy Award-winning selection, and David Benoit, bringing jazz and big band elements to the show (representing an important part of the Japanese-American experience).

Kent Nagano, the artistic director of the performance and the conductor of the Los Angeles Symphony, helped develop the story alongside the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, and the Berkeley Symphony. When asking to talk with Nagano, a source at SMC said that he was unavailable and traveling.

Dale Franzen, an executive producer of the show, when asked of Nagano, said, "I have known Kent both as a singer and now as a producer. He is one of the great conductors we have and a man of total integrity and creative excellence."

The show will perform at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, and then premiere in Los Angeles at UCLA's Royce Hall, part of UCLA Live's 2004/2005 season.

As a music and spoken-text piece written by the acclaimed playwright Philip Kan Gotanda the production uses emotion and art expressing through the Japanese-American internment the evolution of our civil liberties.

It proves itself educational as well as entertaining.

Gotanda became famous as a Japanese-American influencing theater in America.

In particular he is famous for bringing the stories of Asian Americans to the stage.

Working in the past with the American Conservatory Theatre, the London's Gate Theatre and the East West Players, Gotanda, also produces poetry, independent films, and now, with Nagano, an orchestral work with spoken text.

"Gotanda? He's a well-respected award-winning playwright," Adam Philipson, from the Madison Project, said, "and he's also the director of "Manzanar."

The performance structured in three parts Claire describes as gesamtkunstwerk, a German word meaning, that "it includes art other than music. It describes Wagner's operas, the legends, the voices, the orchestra, the emotion, all of it."

The media of expression featured in the show includes a full orchestra, a children's chorus, several actors and a narrator weaving text through the music.

SMC's Opera Camp partly inspired the idea for the Manzanar Youth Choir when Nagano saw them perform.

"Maestro Nagano envisioned a multi-ethnic youth choir," Philipson said, "similar to SMC's Opera Camp program."

For that reason the Opera Camp program involves tryouts for the Youth Choir and the choir will consist mostly of Opera Camp members. The auditions, however, are open to anyone.

The other part of the Manzanar Youth Choir will consist of SMC's Chamber Choir. St. Claire mentioned that the SMC Chamber Choir is still accepting students for the production, while, Franzen said, this is "a once- in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform with internationally renowned maestro Kent Nagano, and sing at Royce Hall in a premiere."

As for the other performances in the musical and narrative structure, the American Youth Symphony will provide the orchestra, with Kristi Nagano, Olympic Skating Gold Medalist, and actress Pat Suzuki, as participating readers in the production.

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, who serves as the project's honorary co-chair, will also be one of the readers on stage. Philipson said that not all the reading, nor acting parts for the production have been chosen.

With "Manzanar" making a bold statement on the stage, the Madison Project, not to be outdone by its other works-in-progress, promises the community and SMC a growing future of performing arts with its new stage.

Philipson even hinted that when the 540-seat hall opens in 2007, Dustin Hoffman might head a theater arts company during the winter and summer months.

"Manzanar: An American Story" premieres Thursday, June 2, at 8 p.m. at UCLA, part of UCLA Live's '04/'05 season. For ticket information call (310) 825-2101.