By Allyson Pang, AsAmNews Staff Writer
In 2017, bassist Simon Tam wanted to trademark the name of his Asian American rock band, “The Slants,” which aimed to take back the slur and empower the Asian community. However, because it was viewed as derogatory, the Patent and Trademark office rejected Tam’s request.
Tam did not expect this fight for their band’s name to be trademarked to go all the way to the Supreme Court, but he did and he ultimately won.
His case Matal v. Tam reflected a victory in free speech through a unanimous 8-0 vote that deemed it unconstitutional for a federal law to prohibit trademarked names that disparage others because “speech may not be banned on the grounds that it expresses ideas that offend.”
Tam transformed his story in the Supreme Court into Slanted: An American Rock Opera through the New Works Collective program in the Opera Theatre in St. Louis, Missouri.
The deep irony to his story was even though he had been fighting for the freedom of speech in the highest court in the nation, he couldn’t speak for himself.
“I’ve always had to rely on an advocate,” Tam told AsAmNews. “I wasn’t the lead singer of the band and so someone else sang the songs. And in the courtroom, I wasn’t the attorney, so only the attorney could speak.”
Tam created the opera to say what he wished he could have said in that courtroom. Plus, local community members showed interest in hearing Tam and fellow band member Joe X Jiang’s story about The Slants.
According to the stage director Rajendra Maharaj, Slanted was selected through an application process that involved submitting a concept, a sample of the work and a statement explaining the use of funding to an all-BIPOC selection committee from St. Louis.
Maharaj was particularly excited with Slanted because it felt like an acknowledgment and opportunity for future generations of marginalized communities.
“For us as Asians and South Asians and folks from the diaspora, [we’ve] often felt invisible in certain spaces in the entertainment industry,” Maharaj said to AsAmNews. “So, to be able to say ‘we’re gonna take this story and we’re going to make it a contemporary rock opera,’ it’s just groundbreaking.”
Challenging a “white” opera space
The rock opera changed the role of Asians in opera from subservient to being a lead.
Maharaj said this was the first time that the selection power was not in the hands of the opera house–which was predominantly White men–but given to the community.
Tam described the challenge of working in an existing system not familiar with or designed to accommodate people from marginalized communities. As he worked further into Slanted, he realized how inaccessible this art form was to communities of color.
He did admit the St. Louis opera house was willing to learn how to include cultural phrases within the opera, which was something not done before.
“Inclusion isn’t just having folks of color give you something that you take and put it on stage. It means making sure we’re at the table and able to make authoritative decisions on how the work is created and that we’re able to make our own decisions on how we’re treated,” Tam said.
Selected to play Simon in the opera is 10-year professional opera singer Matthew Pearce who told AsAmNews that this experience is a personally fulfilling one.
Having experienced many years in the industry, Pearce described the audience demographic to be primarily upper-class and White. He said “Slanted” could share stories from minorities and hopefully educate them on these experiences.
“For [Simon and Joe] to pick such a traditional art form…[we’re] able to present these stories to a demographic that might not hear it otherwise,” Pearce said.
While there are existing operas touching on Asian cultures like Madama Butterfly and Turandot, Pearce said Slanted captured the Asian experience in a more genuine and authentic way.
“When you give voice to those who are the most disenfranchised, most marginalized in the world, it actually improves the experience for everybody,” Tam said.
An opera for everyone to enjoy
“Although this is an Asian story, people who are trans, people who are queer [or] of color, people who are fighting for citizenship of all nationalities and all walks of life, can find themselves in [this story],” Maharaj said. “At the end of the day, that’s what we’re trying to do: art that uplifts the human spirit and reminds us that we’re one people.”
Maharaj said being South Asian-Caribbean-African American, he felt genuinely recognized with all of his identities through the rock opera.
Pearce reacted similarly to Maharaj. Being ethnically ambiguous as half-Korean, Pearce also felt seen through this opera as an Asian American.
“This is really one about people exactly like me. People that are Asian American and culturally both,” Pearce said.
He added that the opera was more than a fight for Asian free speech, but free speech for everyone.
For Tam, his compelling moment was when one of the community members said they waited over 40 years to see an opera where the only Asian person on stage was not holding a tray.
“It’s much bigger than our band or my story,” Tam said. “It plays into this idea that people want the right to be able to tell their own stories and they also want to see their own stories on stage so that other people can learn from that experience.”
Slanted runs from March 16-18 at Catherine B. Berges Theatre at the Center of Creative Arts in St. Louis. Tickets are $35-$55 and available at https://opera-stl.org/whats-on/nwc/.
Additionally, The Slants are also working on its final full-length album, The Band Plays On, which will be released in the fall of 2023.
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