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BWW Reviews: HGO's THE MEMORY STONE is Haunting, Gorgeous, and Spellbinding

Houston Grand Opera (HGO)'s 50th World Premiere Opera had its first public performance last night at Asia Society Texas Center. This enchanting chamber opera is a gorgeous and stirring piece that examines the power and necessity of memory for the advancement of the human species. It opens with rollicking thunder and a stunning, breathtaking image that is representative of the destruction of Japan in wake of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. As a woman sings about various terrible and destructive moments from Japan's rich history, the scene shifts to the tea room in Houston's Japanese garden. Here the non-linear opera explores how such tragedies affect Japanese-Americans and immigrants from Japan, deftly playing on the emotions, sympathy, and empathy of the assembled audience. The compelling opera elicited several gasps of sorrow, pain, and understanding from the opening night audience as the beauty of the piece spoke to our hearts, minds, and souls.

Marty Regan's score intertwines Western notions of music with traditional Japanese stylings to create a sound that is wholly familiar and unique at the same time. His string quartet plays with a fervor and urgency that is reminiscent of Philip Glass's compositions. This frenetic quality is mirrored in Yumi Kurosawa's melodic, driving, and stunning playing of the 21-string koto, which really enhances the audience's response and further draws us into the majesty of the piece. On top of the undulating motion of the strings, Marty Regan adds in (and for last night's performance played) the plaintive and elegiac shakuhachi. Marty Regan's balanced and emotive instrumentation perfectly matches the emotional intensity the written libretto, ensuring that the audience viscerally feels every moment of the 45 minute chamber opera.

The gripping libretto is skillfully written by Kenny Fries. His lyrics are profound and poignant, moving the audience through various emotions with ease. The opera is performed in English, and Kenny Fries shows a mastery of the language, picking words with precision to wholly and completely affect the audience at both an emotional and spiritual level. As he explores the themes of memory and transcending tragedy, Kenny Fries' libretto causes the audience to escape our current conditions and personally experience the emotions, pain, and triumphs of his cast of characters.

Direction by Matthew Ozawa pristinely captures every element of Marty Regan's score and Kenny Fries' libretto, bringing the opera to remarkably salient life. He directs his cast with masterful accuracy to guarantee that every moment resonates within the audience, imparting us with a generous gift of memory. Namely, the memory of seeing such a moving performance and reviving our own memories of significant natural disasters and other major catastrophes from our own perspectives, our own lives.

Making her HGO debut as The Woman, Nina Yoshida Nelsen guides the audience through a journey of devastation and destruction that transforms before our eyes into sublime hope and compassion. Her mezzo-soprano voice is haunting and captivating. Nina Oshida Nelsen magically invades the heart and soul as she deftly sings through the mesmerizing score.

With a powerful and gorgeous soprano voice, Ji Hyun Jang sings Rei with fantastic control and emotionality. Her soprano voice sparkles with a youthful radiance, imbuing Rei with charismatic liveliness and spirit.

Takaoki Onishi sings The Man with an incredibly grandiose and regal baritone voice. He adeptly commands attention every time his mouth opens, bringing glimmering pizzazz to his stupendous performance.

The star of the evening is Mihoko Kinosa's elegant and pristine soprano voice, as she thrillingly sings Hana. Each note is rendered with poise and dexterous exactitude, providing the audience with emotional depth, palpable weight, and insightful clarity in each and every phrase. Her soprano instrument is luxurious and elegant, entrancing and exhilarating. Mihoko Kinosa's astonishing, priceless, and keen talent makes ardent and earnest Hana the most relatable character. She thoughtfully and deeply impresses upon our hearts, minds, and souls throughout the performance. Her anguish is tangible, her desires heartrending. Mihoko Kinosa's Hana is simply spellbinding, spectacular, and immaculately performed.

Scenic Design by Libbie Masterson is simplistic but detailed. She employs flats on casters set at right angles to form the tea house in Houston's Japanese garden. Each angle is rolled away and manipulated throughout the performance by the cast to shift location and create a different and beautiful backdrop for the performance. In conceit, this element sounds distracting, but it is not. Instead it adds a timeless and placeless quality to the performance and makes it all the more magical and riveting.

Lighting Design by Michael Mullins perfectly uses colorful palates and the upstage cyclorama, which is black in this production, to heighten mood and tone. He blends and adjusts colors with clever expertise, adding to the picturesque and simplistically stated imagery of the performance.

Costume Design by Clair Hummel is surprisingly versatile. With the rolling of a sleeve or unzipping a zipper, costumes can transform before the audience's eyes. This aids in never allowing a moment in the opera to drag and creates a seamless transition between Houston and Japan. The adaptability and resourcefulness of the design is miraculous and delightful. Then her final costume change for The Woman and The Man, which I won't go into detail about, so as not to ruin the surprise, is moving, alluring, evocative, emotive, awe-inspiring, and astounding. Honestly, there may not be enough superlatives for how affecting and amazing it is, especially in combination with the staging and lighting.

HGO's haunting, gorgeous, and spellbinding 50th world premiere opera, THE MEMORY STONE runs for two more performances on April 10 & 11, 2013 at Asia Society Texas Center at 1370 Southmore Boulevard, Houston, Texas. Also, concert excerpts from the opera will be performed as part of the Japan Festival at Hermann Park on April 13 & 14, 2013. For more information about the opera please visit All performances are free and open to the public. For tickets and information about the performances at Asia Society Texas Center, please visit or call (713) 496 - 9901. For tickets and information about the performances at the Japan Festival, please visit

All photos by Felix Sanchez, courtesy of Houston Grand Opera.

Nina Yoshida Nelsen (The Woman).

Ji Hyun Jang (Rei); Nina Yoshida Nelsen (The Woman).

Takaoki Onishi (The Man); Ji Hyun Jang (Rei).

Takaoki Onishi (The Man); Mihoko Kinosa (Hana); Ji Hyun Jang (Rei); Nina Yoshida Nelsen (The Woman).

Ji Hyun Jang (Rei); Mihoko Kinosa (Hana).

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