One of the themes of both the CD you recorded with the kids from the Museum of the Chinese in the Americas and The Floating Box is generational conflict, and how the differences between generations are further exacerbated by the immigration experience. Why was this an important issue for you to address?
Jason Hwang: It's common for young immigrants or for the American-born children of immigrants, like me, to know very little about the lives of our parents in China. Language, of course, is a huge wall. I don't speak Chinese. There were only two Chinese families in the town I grew up in, and during that era of the "melting pot", bilingual education was unheard of. My parents spoke excellent English, but it was a second language. My wife communicates to her parents only with her limited Cantonese. Generational differences and change are important themes.
Catherine Filloux: There’s a sense of this "other place" with the older generation coming from somewhere else that immediately becomes something to push against emotionally. Sometimes I find a sense of having to respect parents in a way that makes it difficult to see who the real person behind that figurehead is. So those are two themes.
How does this generational conflict relate to the “composite portraits” you discovered while doing background research for this opera? Why were these collages such important symbols?
Catherine Filloux: The portraits are in the Museum of Chinese in the Americas and as soon as I saw them I was really blown away by the fact that people would go out of their way to cut and paste and create these. I was further impressed by the fact that these portraits exist not only in Chinese culture but in several other cultures as well. Ellis Island had an exhibit that showed different types of portraits of this kind and they just seemed to embody the incredible attempt to let people float across oceans so that they could all be in the same photograph.
Jason Hwang: Also, let me address a question which your readers may have. When I was in the process of looking for a librettist I had spoken to a lot of Asian American playwrights. The librettist and I had to be aesthetically compatible and share an emotional commitment to the work. I was surprised by the number of Asian American writers who had no interest in the subject of Chinatown. Ethnicity and identity can be complex.
Jean Randich: I think the composite family portrait that unites on paper people who might never again be united in the flesh is a powerful metaphor for the act of memory, theater, and creation itself. Why do we picture certain people we are fond of always in the same way? Why do we continue to desire and imagine certain things we may never attain? The beauty of the cut and pasted photograph in The Floating Box is that it was once the handiwork of the mother who has since become a shut-in. Once she had the strength and courage to create iconic images to help uprooted immigrants sustain their dreams. The imagination and spirit are always there, waiting for us. But we must make the effort to summon them. Eva [the opera's main character] must also learn to cut and paste if she is to piece together a more comprehensive picture of who her parents are and who she can be.