Huiyin Tan, as Young Bee Yang, rehearses the Minnesota Opera’s production of The Song Poet on March 7, 2023. Credit: Cory Weaver

For much of Kao Kalia Yang’s life, the world of opera felt very far away. 

“I grew up poor on the East Side of St. Paul,” Yang said. “I came here as a refugee kid. So, the world of opera is not a very accessible world to me. I’d gone to a few operas when I was in graduate school in New York City, but then it was to all the glitz and the glam. I didn’t see space for myself.”

To Yang, those New York City operas, performed in Italian, felt like “another world.” Now, almost two decades later, Yang will have the opportunity to see an opera that is very much her world—an adaptation of her award-winning memoir, The Song Poet, premieres Thursday at the Luminary Arts Center in Minneapolis. 

The production by the Minnesota Opera and Theater Mu is a milestone: it’s believed to be the first Hmong story ever adapted for the operatic stage, a local story with universal themes of love, loss, sacrifice, and belonging. The opera will be sung in both Hmong and English, with subtitles projected above the stage. It runs from March 9-26.

It tells the story of Yang’s father Bee Yang, whose traditional Hmong song poetry helped keep his family’s stories and hopes alive as he navigated the Vietnam War and life as a refugee and factory worker in Minnesota.   

Yang said her father is an “incredible singer” in the Hmong tradition. 

Kao Kalia Yang outside of her home in St. Paul, Minnesota, on March 6, 2023. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

“And so in many ways, it was surprising, but it was also so fitting that it would happen on a musical stage,” Yang said of the opera. “It honors, in a very real way, the man that my father is, but also the art form that he comes from.”

It’s also an honor for Yang, whose writing career first took off in 2008 when she published The Latehomecomer, a memoir that tells the story of her family’s escape from the Vietnam War and its aftermath in Laos, their journey to the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand, where Yang was born, and their eventual arrival in the Twin Cities.

The Song Poet, her next book, won the Minnesota Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Among the readers moved by it was Jamie Andrews, who was then working as the Chief Learning Officer at the Minnesota Opera. 

“Jamie was the one who one day sent me an email, about five years ago now, saying, ‘Kalia, I just read your book and was so empowered. When I read The Latehomecomer I thought, ‘How might this look as an opera?’ But when I read this one, I knew it could exist as one. Would you be interested in meeting with me and talking?’” Yang said. “And that was it.”

Bee Yang, ‘co-composer’

At first, the Minnesota Opera planned to adapt The Song Poet as a youth opera—part of a program then called Project Opera. But in 2020, that changed with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and a racial justice uprising that challenged representation in the arts.

“The longer we spent with the story, the more lift we wanted to try to give it,” said Ryan Taylor, the Minnesota Opera’s executive director.  

As a result, the scope of the show changed. The Minnesota Opera, in collaboration with the Asian American theater organization Theater Mu, decided to make the show one of its main adult productions for 2023. 

It’s not just a passive honor, either. During the rehearsal process, Jocelyn  Hagen, the show’s composer, asked Bee Yang to sing different lyrics in the script—studying his singing patterns and blending his vocal craft with her compositional style. Taylor said that Hagen credits him as the show’s “co-composer.”

“Both in the way [Hagen] sets the piece instrumentally and the way that she has created the vocal lines, if you’re hearing something from the performer that is playing the role of Bee Yang, you’re hearing Bee Yang’s music,” Taylor said.  

Kao Kalia Yang served as the librettist, ensuring that the show’s text corresponded appropriately to the book. Lee Pao Xiong, director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University, worked with the opera’s pan-Asian cast on their pronunciation of Hmong words.

Throughout the process, Yang said, her father has supported her like he always has. 

“My dad has known a great deal of disappointment in his life, so every time I try something new, he supports me through it and says, ‘We’ll see what happens,’” Yang said. “So true to his form, that’s his approach. He says, ‘It’s going to the world on Thursday, we’ll see what happens, and I’ll still be here with you at the end of it.’”

One thing is clear already: demand to see the show is high. Only a handful of tickets remain for the nine public performances, with a number of shows completely sold out. Tickets have been in such high demand, Taylor said, that the Minnesota Opera is already planning on offering the show again at a yet-to-be-announced future date. 

Xiong said the pace of ticket sales is a testament to the desire all communities have to see their experiences and stories on stage.  

“You have to produce something that the community wants,” Xiong said. “You can always go with the MacBeth, you can do all the Shakespeare in the world, but at the same time, what does the community yearn for? If you have something that is viewed as meaningful by the community, they will continue to support it.” 

Improving community access

The Minnesota Opera has taken steps to try to keep the show accessible. A group from St. Paul Public Schools has been invited to see a performance of the show on March 5, while a group from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, public schools will see the show two days later. A March 25 performance is reserved exclusively for invited members of the Hmong community.

“This cannot be a one-off experiment,” Yang said. “It is the beginning of a movement to bring in true diversity to these forms that have been, for so long, exclusive.”

According to Taylor, that’s Minnesota Opera’s aim. He said the organization wants to showcase talent from the local community and highlight the stories and cultural traditions of people who have often left out of opera. 

A show like The Song Poet highlights the value of language—including languages that have survived in the United States in spite of the toll taken by institutional discrimination, Xiong said. 

“Because of the fact that we live in America, parents like Kalia’s dad would encounter situations where people would tell them, ‘Don’t speak Hmong, speak English. You’re in America now,’” Xiong said. “And they would in turn tell their children, ‘Learn English, learn English.’ To me, that’s trauma… But to have the language be spoken at a major production like this validates to the students and the people in the audience that your language is important.”

Yang is planning on attending the premiere, but her entire family, including her father, have tickets to the show on March 23. It will be the first opera her children ever see—and it won’t be in Italian, but in Hmong.

“I hope young Hmong students will see what is possible,” Yang said. “They will see one more barrier broken down. This is a historical work, but I am not a historical person. I’m a 42-year-old woman who lives here, who wears sweatpants up and down these streets. I hope, in that way, they see pieces of themselves reflected.”

For more information about The Song Poet opera and how to buy tickets, visit:

Abe Asher is a journalist whose work covering protest, police, and politics has appeared in The Nation, VICE News, the Portland Mercury, and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @abe_asher.