Van Nuys High School students on a visit to the Japanese American National MuseumEXPAND
Van Nuys High School students on a visit to the Japanese American National Museum
Gabriel Zuniga

Van Nuys High School Students Made Something Beautiful Out of a Lesson in American History

“Even though our department is full of creative people, it can be a little bit hard to get original ideas out of us,” says Lucy White, a senior in the Van Nuys High School choir. “We are teenagers, so we have some self-esteem things,” she explains.

Luckily the L.A. Master Chorale’s Voices Within team knows a thing or two about drawing self-conscious teens out of their shells.

Since the beginning of the fall semester, composer David O, librettist Doug Cooney and singer Alice Kirwan Murray have worked with Van Nuys High choir students on an ambitious project. Together (and with more than a little help from VNHS choral director Brianne Arevalo) the students have researched, written and composed “In America,” a dramatic 45-minute oratorio about the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II. This week, accompanied by a band of student musicians, the choir is giving the piece its world premiere.

White didn’t know what an oratorio was at the beginning of the school year. She also didn’t know much about Japanese-American internment camps beyond what was covered briefly in her U.S. history class. Now, she speaks fluently and passionately about both subjects.

Students performing the oratorio In AmericaEXPAND
Students performing the oratorio In America
Adrien Redford/L.A. Master Chorale

“An oratorio is like an opera but not an opera. I think of it as musical theater mixed with classical music,” she explains correctly (the difference between an opera and oratorio is simply that an opera is staged and an oratorio is not).

Before they wrote a word or composed a note, White and her classmates delved into the history of Japanese-American incarceration. On a field trip to the Japanese American National Museum they met docents who had been interned in camps and heard their stories first-hand. At home, the students researched their own family’s immigration stories.

Olivia Rodriguez is a senior and president of the VNHS choir. “My family comes from Mexico,” she says. “My great-grandmother came here with just her daughter to start a new life. When I talked to her for this project, she said she just really wanted her family to have a better chance. It was really cool for me to be able to relate that to what happened to the Japanese-Americans who came here for the same reason.”

Creating a narrative and writing a melody from scratch are daunting tasks. The L.A. Master Chorale team guided the high schoolers through the process using a variety of smartly designed interactive activities. They guided the students through developing compelling characters and asked them to write haiku based on texts or interviews that stood out to them. The students practiced musical improvisation using household items (White remembers turning a bag of potato chips into maracas), and took turns interpreting each other’s drawings of roller coasters as vocal melodies.

Eventually, the high schoolers recorded their melodic ideas with their phones and handed them over to composer David O to massage into a fully orchestrated piece.

In America is a moving work. The grand finale focuses on the challenges Japanese-Americans faced even after they were released from camps. The lyrics are direct and effective, ending in a poignant question:

“You look at us strangely.
And call us ugly names.
But we are citizens like you.
Even when we were not.

Where can I be an American, if not here?”

Rodriguez says that the experience of collaborating on this piece with her peers has been deeply meaningful. “Especially nowadays when things are getting kind of rough, this reminds us we all have each other. I think it is really exciting that we can show how much these stories mean to us through the power of music.”

Rodriguez is excited for her friends and family to hear the piece this week. “It’s really beautiful,” she says. “I think it’s going to bring everybody to tears.”

You can hear the world premiere performance of In America on Saturday, Feb. 18, at 2 p.m. at the Van Nuys High School Auditorium, 6535 Cedros Ave., Van Nuys. The concert is free and open to the public.

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