Last night I went to the London premiere of chamber opera Tokaido Road at the new Milton Court Theatre on Silk Street. I say chamber opera but it might more accurately be described as music theatre as it tells its tale through a fascinating mixture of music, poetry, mime, dance and visual imagery. It’s based on Hiroshige’s series of woodblock prints depicting the fifty-three stopping points of the Tokaido, the ancient Eastern Sea Road that ran from Tokyo to Kyoto. Travelling the Tokaido Road was harsh and dangerous and the opera depicts its perils as well as its pleasures.
We have two guides on the road – one is Hiroshige himself in old age looking back on his life, the other a modern tourist seeking the past in present day images of the places Hiroshige made famous. Jeremy Williams, a veteran of the Welsh National Opera, sings Hiroshige with sympathy and depth.
The story is that of young Hiroshige, Hiro, and his encounters on the road with two women he comes to love – Kikuyo, a maiko (apprentice geisha), and Mariko, a tea master. He learns about love and hardship as he crosses the many rivers and climbs snowy mountains before finally arriving in the ‘city of dreams’ Kyoto.
Much of the storytelling is done in mime, led by Haruko Kuroda, who brings to comic life many of Hiroshige’s images including a fat lord being carried on a palanquin by struggling bearers, and the spirit of the river that tries to suck people under to die.
The opera last less than an hour but in that time we come to see Hiroshige’s prints in a fascinating new way; not as artworks but as the record of experiences on the road that left travellers forever changed by what they had seen and encountered.
Their line up includes koto, shakuhachi, sho, oboe, clarinet and viola. (For some background on Japanese musical instruments see my post here). Tokaido Road was conceived and created by Okeanos founder member, clarinettist and academic Kate Romano, a senior academic at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
The libretto is based on Nancy Gaffield’s award-winning poetry collection Tokaido Road, a sequence of poems that responded to each of the prints in the series. I interviewed Nancy ahead of the opera’s premiere at the Cheltenham Festival last year.
A big thank you to Kate Romano for inviting me to attend the opera and take part in a critical response session when it was over. I’d like to tell you to go and see it but, sadly, no more London performances are planned, though the opera will be performed at the Gulbenkian Theatre in Canterbury on 23rd May and at the Alwinton Festival in Northumberland on 27th June.