It’s a day (or maybe an overnight) trip from London, but I couldn’t resist telling you about a new multi-media chamber music opera, Tokaido Road, which is premiering at the Cheltenham Music Festival in July. It’s based on Hiroshige’s series of woodblock prints depicting the fifty-three stations of the Tokaido, the old road that ran from Tokyo to Kyoto. And, as a special treat, I have an exclusive interview with the librettist, Nancy Gaffield.
Hiroshige’s prints were produced in 1832 after he travelled the length of the Tokaido Road (the ‘stations’ were resting places along the way) as part of a delegation transporting horses for presentation to the Imperial Court. They are a wonderful depiction of the scenery and life of the time. The opera follows Hiroshige’s journey and includes projections of Hiroshige’s original woodblocks prints.
The opera lasts fifty minutes and is a composite of music, poetry, mime, dance and visual imagery. It features Okeanos, a unique Western-Japanese music ensemble. The libretto is based on Nancy Gaffield’s award-winning poetry collection Tokaido Road. I asked Nancy about the creative process that led to the opera.
FRAN: What got you interested in writing about the Tokaido Road?
NANCY: The idea for the collection began with a visit to Japan I made in 2008. I stayed in a traditional Japanese inn (called ryokan) in Kyoto for a few days, touring the many famous Zen temples and gardens.
That resulted in a cycle of poems I called, “Pictures from the floating world.” This expression is the English translation of the Japanese word ukiyo-e, or woodblock print.
At that time, I was a student on the MA in Creative Writing programme at the University of Kent and needed to write a sequence of poems, so I started looking at Hiroshige’s “53 Stations of the Tokaido Road” and suddenly had a light-bulb moment and knew then I wanted to write a sequence of poems that responded to each of those prints.
FRAN: What is your experience of Japan?
NANCY: I first encountered Hiroshige’s woodblock print series in Oregon in the late 1970s. You could almost say that they led me to Japan, where I lived in the 1980s. I lived in Tokyo for five years, my daughter was born there, and I still have many friends there and have made several subsequent visits.
I became very close friends with the Japanese artist Tetsu Kurata and his wife, Nagako. It really is because of them and due to them that I was able to write Tokaido Road.
FRAN: Does the opera feature Japanese characters?
NANCY: Just as the collection of poems, Tokaido Road, has characters, so too does the opera. There is Hiroshige as the aged artist reflecting on his life and work, there is a character named “Hiro” who is the young Hiroshige enjoying all that the road has to offer, and there are the two women he loved: Kikuyo, a maiko (apprentice geisha), and Mariko, a tea master.
All of these characters appear in the poetry, but the narrative in the opera is a completely new element.
FRAN: What else do you think is specifically Japanese about the opera?
NANCY: The setting. The opera takes place in 1832 as Hiro travels the Tokaido Road from Nihonbashi (Tokyo) to Kyoto. Hiroshige is best known as a landscape artist, so the setting is an important element in the opera. However, the events depicted are framed by images of modern-day Japan—Tokyo in the prologue, Kyoto in the epilogue.
FRAN: How did you link up with Okeanos?
NANCY: That is one of those wonderful, serendipitous events that sometimes happens in life. Jinny Shaw (Okeanos) had seen a review of Tokaido Road in the Guardian, read the book and liked it very much. She mentioned it to Kate Romano, and Kate contacted me in March of 2012 about the possibility of collaboration.
Okeanos is well known for innovative music combining Japanese and western instruments and were looking for a new project to combine story telling, the connections between Japanese art and music, and questions raised around the concept of ekphrasis (art generating art), which is at the heart both of the Tokaido Road poems and the opera.
We met, and a month later, the concept was born, including the prospect of commissioning Nicola LeFanu as composer. Nicola accepted—and we were well and truly on the road.
Tokaido Road is showing at the Parabola Arts Centre as part of the Cheltenham Festival on Sunday, 6 July 2014 at 4:30 pm. Tickets are on sale now.