New opera Tokaido Road premieres in July


Setting out on the Tokaido Road – Nihonbashi

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.

First Station - Shinagawa

First Station – Shinagawa

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.

Sixth station - Fujisawa

Sixth station – Fujisawa

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.

Eleventh station - Hakone

Tenth station – Hakone

FRAN: What got you interested in writing about the Tokaido Road?

Nancy GaffieldNANCY: 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.

Thirteenth Station - Numazu

Twelfth station – Numazu

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.

Twenty-second Station - Okabe

Twenty-first station – Okabe

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.

Thirty-sixth station - Akasaka

Thirty-sixth station – Akasaka

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.

Thirty-eigth station - Okazaki

Thirty-eigth station – Okazaki

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.

OkeanosOkeanos 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.

Forty-seventh station - Seki

Forty-seventh station – Seki

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.

Fifty-third station - Otsu

Fifty-third station – Otsu

12 thoughts on “New opera Tokaido Road premieres in July

  1. Gosh, I’m pea green with envy. Do you think this may travel to any other festivals or is it just going to be at Cheltenham? Perhaps they should contact the people at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival for next year (2015) – she suggests hopefully!!


  2. I wish I could see this. It sounds like they’ve got the right people on board to make a theatrical piece that does justice to both its Eastern and Western origins. Best of luck to them!


  3. Wow! What a fantastic project. I am a little curious to see that of all the people involved in this project none appear to be Japanese, but maybe I am wrong or maybe there are people behind the scenes. What about the singers?


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