Rita Ueda, I Have My Mother's Eyes and art as community-building and healing

Vancouver composer Rita Ueda presents the world premiere of I Have My Mother’s Eyes: A Holocaust Memoir Across Generation chamber opera at the Norman Rockwell Theatre on November 18 and 19, 2023 at 8:00 pm.

Celebrated as a composer whose “poetic is often very delicate and introspective…” (Guido Barbieri, Warner Classics), Ueda’s orchestral, operatic and choral works inspire contemplation and “confronts tensions in and between cultures” (Azriele Music Prize).

Rita Ueda (photo: Alistair Eagle)

Specializing in intercultural collaborations and music, she seamlessly connects disparate histories, traditions, and instruments. In I Have My Mother’s Eyes, she brings together musicians from around the globe to form a chamber ensemble of piano, cello, and violin alongside sho (Japanese reed), shakuhachi (flute), and koto (zither).

Ueda is setting a new precedent during the upcoming premiere of I Have My Mother’s Eyes—it will be the first time the musicians gather on-stage to play the score. The opportunity to improvise, experiment and negotiate invites performers and listeners to engage in what Rita calls “musical community building.”

“My hope is to create a score where we find out where we are going together as a community,” Ueda explains. “It’s a kind of group discovery that invites intercultural dialogue.”

I Have My Mother’s Eyes is based on the memoir of two families bonded by the events of WWII. Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who served in Lithuania, and his wife Yukiko risked everything to issue travel visas to Jewish families during the Holocaust. Among the thousands brought to safety were Zosia and Natek Bluman who made the harrowing journey to settle in Vancouver. Their daughter, Barbara Ruth Bluman, wrote the memoir to honour both the heroism of Sugihara’s defiance and her parents’ bravery.

Ueda believes opera above-all can speak to the listener at the deepest and most profound level. Barbara Ebbeson (mezzo soprano) and Teiya Kasahara (soprano) bring emotion to light at a time when communities around the world are experiencing incredible grief and suffering. Illuminating personal and collective stories of courage and resilience is needed now more than ever before.

Powell Street Festival Society is proud to support I Have My Mother’s Eyes as a community partner of Chutzpah! Festival. We acknowledge the dissenting actions and courage found in the Sugihara-Bluman story. We in the Powell Street Festival community wrestle with what it means to inherit the aftermath of dispossessive violence and ongoing legacies of settler colonialism. In our historic home of Powell Street, we are grappling with the issues of housing precarity or being unhoused, successive health crises (HIV/AIDS, deinstitutionalization, toxic drugs, COVID-19), criminalization and police brutality, and gender-based violence resulting in the deaths and disappearances of (primarily Indigenous) women, girls, and gender-diverse people.

We welcome works such as Ueda’s to remind us of our agency and indeed responsibility to name and resist inequity and violence, in the Powell Street area and beyond. Against the common refrain in the Japanese Canadian community of shou ga nai (“It can’t be helped”), we invite you, via Ueda’s I Have My Mother’s Eyes, to consider the possibility that on the contrary, it can, and that we all—each of us, in different ways—have a responsibility to make it so.

Tickets to I Have My Mother’s Eyes can be purchased on the Chutzah! Festival website.