By Joe Linstroth / Photo by Cory Weaver

Last March, the Minnesota Opera debuted the world premiere of The Song Poet. Adapted by St. Paul-based writer Kao Kalia Yang from her acclaimed memoir of the same name, the production is believed to be the first Hmong story ever adapted for the operatic stage. Professor Mina Kinukawa, who is head of the design and technologies of performance minor in the Theater and Dance Department, served as the production’s scenic designer. She shares what it was like to work on this groundbreaking artistic endeavor.

Q: What is the story about?

A: It’s about Kao Kalia Yang’s father’s refugee story, from the bombing of Laos and the family’s escape through Thailand, where they lived in a refugee camp for eight years. Then the family moved to St. Paul, where they faced new struggles as refugees in the United States.

Her father was called the “song poet” because he used to write songs, and in the Hmong community, songs and poems are considered very important.

Q: As the scenic designer, what were the biggest challenges you faced in bringing this production to life?

A: It was a challenge to create a world onstage that was true to the poetic descriptions in Kao Kalia Yang’s memoir.

Also, the play is about Laos, the mountains, and the nature the Hmong community lived in, and I focused on bringing that to the stage and keeping it there even after the action transfers to St. Paul. It was a challenge to establish that world and maintain a connection to it, even while the action shifted to other locations like Thailand and St. Paul.

Q: What did you do design-wise to keep that nature onstage?

A: I tried to capture the color of the forests and the shape of the mountains. The director said from the get-go that we would like to keep the mountains onstage, at least the silhouette of them. We could not keep everything green all the time, because the setting had to change into a factory in St. Paul, so I worked with the lighting designer to make it more of a watercolor feel that changed with the lighting.

I thought I had captured what the mountains of Laos looked like, but then the cultural consultant asked me if I would consider including brown areas. I asked her why, and she told me that they used slash-and-burn methods to build villages. They cut down the forest, and built up their villages, so for the Hmong people, these would be references to what their villages looked like. I saw the images with villages built into the mountainside, but I didn’t understand the larger story.

Q: What are you most proud of about your work on this production?

A: We had an audience pretty early on during the previews, with local high school students and members of the Hmong community. Just seeing how the Hmong audience responded to the message, and hearing how somebody said that they really remembered what their house in Laos was like, was very rewarding.

Q: There’s been more visibility for Asian and Asian American stories in popular culture lately. As someone who was born and raised in Japan and has spent much of your professional career in the arts in the US, what do you make of what’s happening right now?

A: Of course, I think that it’s exciting, but I’m also a little cautious, just because I feel like when there’s a moment like this, we often take a step back. It is great that this is happening, but then what’s next? Does this actually continue, or is it just a one-time thing?

In terms of Macalester, we have a lot of international students from Asia and Asian American students coming to do theater, which is really exciting. With shows like The Song Poet, I can show them that there are these stories that we are telling, so they see a future for themselves in the theater.

Joe Linstroth is director of media relations and public affairs at Macalester.

November 1 2023

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