A Bridge Between East and West ; Kate Romano


Two weeks ago, I gave a paper at Kogakkan University, Ise (Japan) called ‘Tokaido Road, a Bridge Between East and West’. It was a timely invitation to reflect on three remarkable years and to lay to rest some of the thorny questions about the mix of arts and two cultures which had been keeping me awake at night. I was reasonably content with my conclusions which I share with you here: yet even as I ended my talk, I felt the tingling of a new line of thought… To begin, here is an extract from the end of my paper:

And whilst we certainly didn’t set out to create a Curlew River in Tokaido Road, I think that I can say we share with Britten, a tourist’s fascination with Japanese culture and a desire to get beyond the merely superficial Japonaiserie. Like Britten, Nicola LeFanu adapts the sounds of traditional Japanese music to her own purposes. Echoes of Japan are ever present in Tokaido Road but imaginatively bent to new creative purposes. Perhaps it is no coincidence that, like Curlew River, at the heart of Tokaido Road is the river, always present in each picture and in the words of the libretto. The drama is played out against the backdrop of water from the humour of the bathing scene to the tragedy of Kikuyo’s drowning. Here is a river that must be crossed. Perhaps both works – Curlew River and Tokaido Road – are a place between two kingdoms (the West and East) but also life and death, darkness and light, despair and hope. I hope this is what we have created; a place or perhaps even a bridge between worlds.

 How many of us in our creative industry live between worlds! How many there are of us doubling up careers as performers, scholars, composers, conductors, educators, artistic directors… I know actor-musicians, singer-pianists, producer-directors, composer-conductors …..all achieving these double-professions to incredibly high standards. But this is not new behaviour for artists. It is not a reflection of challenging times. This is, I think, where creativity often lies: in the ambiguity and the ambivalence of being in different states, different places and spaces where ideas start to fly and connections start to buzz. It is no coincidence that so many definitions of ‘creativity’ include some form of bringing two – or more – things together:

 ‘….that moment of insight becomes the creative act as a joining of two previously incompatible ideas’ (Lyall Watson, Biologist)

‘I’m interested in the moment when two objects collide and generate a third. The third object is where the interesting work is.’ (Bruce Mau, Designer)

‘…apparently unrelated things become interesting when we start fitting them together’. (John Kouwenhoven, Mathematician)

‘……creativity seems to be something which links things together…within a new whole, which didn’t exist before.’ (Rupert Sheldrake, Biochemist)

Tokaido Road began life as a catalyst for change; to show how art forms and cultures, no matter how seemingly diverse, could work together on a stage. I envisaged not a fusion, not a smudging, blurring or blending of these distinct components, but an exciting synergy where art forms and cultures could hang on to their identities yet work together. I theorized. I stayed up late and pondered complex models. Whilst all along there was a far more simple explanation staring me in the face. I was a musician, composer, scholar, art lover…now a producer…creating an opera… Tokaido Road itself was born out of coexisting in different worlds, out of ambiguity and ambivalence, from my own highly varied background plus a deep curiosity. And you know what? Audiences got it far quicker than I did. They weren’t terribly interested in being presented with answers to thorny questions about a mix of art form and cultures. No, they were drawn to ‘the magical window between two worlds’… a ‘world very unlike our own’, the ‘emphatic intimacy, honesty and beauty of a new place somewhere between East and West, but not belonging quite in either’…’a space between two places’. Most seemed to effortlessly and willingly step into our new world with a great sense of adventure and spirit; why? Because this is where ideas start to fly and the connections start to buzz. Their ideas – not ours! ‘Step into the picture’ says Hiro in the Prologue and how prophetic that turned out to be. Audiences constantly surprise and delight me with their curiosity and hunger for new experiences. Perhaps the most important lesson I have learnt from Tokaido Road is to leave space for audiences to be creative too. We don’t have to answer all our questions no matter how worthy they may seem: art provides a nurturing space for further creativity and ideas to flourish. What better legacy for a project?



Journeys End

Poet and Tokaido Road librettist Nancy Gaffield reflects on her recent visit to Japan…

Objects and spaces bear trace evidence that tell their own stories. How does a poet negotiate the borders between fact and fiction, history and the imagination? These questions have occupied me since I first began writing Tokaido Road in 2008. At that time, the objects were the individual prints of Hiroshige Utagawa titled “The 53 Stations of the Tokaido” or Tokaido gojusan tsugi no uchi). The space was Japan—the Japan I experienced between the years 1979-84, and on subsequent visits, but also Japan as a historical space, a place of myth and legend. Though I did not know the term yet, it was a work based in psychogeography, where the effects of the geographical environment collide with the imagination of the individual poet. The ‘stories’ in the poems are based on historical material, research and observation, but they are also imagined accounts that cross the boundaries of time and place, building a bridge between worlds.

Brocken spectre is the term for the phenomenon of the shadow of an observer cast against mist or cloud. Clearing and concealment—a paradoxical and ancient struggle according to Heidegger. This phenomenon, like Japan itself, has always bedazzled me. Ghost-must, strange-henge, crow knows. Tokaido Road has had a remarkably long life for a little book of poems. Through it, I have met so many remarkable people from whom I have learned so much. In all those involved with the opera, it continues to live and breathe. I will never again be able to think of the Hiro of my poems without hearing Jeremy Huw Williams singing Nicola’s haunting musical rendering of the line: “How shall we remember them?” There is an acoustic of landscape, just as there is in music. Or Tomoko Komura’s interpretation of “Travellers on the Tokaido meander between centuries. Fuji doesn’t change”, as she gestures for the background to change from the modern-day photograph to the print of Kawasaki, and she begins to ferry Hiro across the river into his past and to Kikuyo, Mariko.

From the very beginning, the work was as much about journey as it was about art. And in every work, there is the seed of something new. Each project has a way of segueing into the next. The journey will continue in new forms, new locations. On my last visit to Japan, I kept seeing small frogs—the Japanese word for frog is ‘kaeru’, which also means to return. Somehow there will be a return—a little frog told me so.

Nancy Gaffield

November 2015

The End of the Road? Not quite….

On 28th October in York, we gave the final UK performance of Tokaido Road. What a fitting end to our touring schedule. York is the home of Tokaido Road composer Nicola LeFanu, and the Jack Lyons Concert Hall presented us with a beautiful acoustic combined with a theatrical space and a wonderful appreciative audience.

Time for some reflection now: we have, I think, succeeded in creating and touring a unique, bold and very special work. It was ambitious in its aims – I have spoken many times of the burning questions I had after playing for more than 10 years in Okeanos. Questions about what happens when we collaborate, when we put art forms together in the same space, and – especially – what happens when we bring Western and Eastern cultures together. Tokaido Road was a framework for these questions, but it was also an entertainment – a ‘world between cultures‘, a ‘window into another place’ (I am quoting from audience comments) ….I love to tell stories, I love to make worlds, I love to wonder and (as a friend pointed out the other day) I suspect I am still a bit of child at heart with a healthy dose of naivety which makes me think that projects like Tokaido Road can really happen with enough hard work and good will. And happen it did, thanks to some generous grants and to my fantastic team and their dedication, ideas, creativity, willingness and hard work.

Tokaido Road was a catalyst for change: for non-labelling (how I loathe that ‘fusion’ tag….), for new partnerships, collaborations. Tokaido Road was a project which generated more art – that’s really important to me, that art inspires art and its legacy is not merely data and reports. Tokaido Road hosted a touring photography exhibition of Wynn’s photographs in 3 galleries. Thanks to Dan Harding and the Kent team, it inspired local community art groups to respond to the idea of journeying and travel. The libretto has been published as an independent book. It has generated talks, workshops on poetry and music, study days and taught content in HE institutions in the UK and Japan. It has resulted in paintings and poems as a direct response to the opera. It has a sister-project in the travelling Kamishibai Story-telling version, brought so beautifully to life by Tomoko and Melissa. Kamishibai Tokaido Road premiered at Beth Cuenco’s magical WiseWords Festival to great acclaim and is now touring schools. Last week we linked up with the Wolverhampton Art Gallery for a Japan Family Day. Wolverhampton are currently showing an exhibition of some of the 53 Stations: they are incredibly high quality prints on loan from the Ashmolean and I had to admit to feeling rather emotional looking at such a large collection of them ‘in the flesh’. (I was admittedly a bit tired too!) As part of wider outreach and community projects, our Tokaido Road images have been projected onto a huge helium-filled balloon which hung over the night sky of Canterbury like a huge moon, whilst 300 floating candles sailed down the river in a Toro Nagashi (Wish for Peace), remembering historic events in Japan (2015 marks 70 years since Hiroshima) and throughout the world. Nicola, Nancy and I have given many talks on the opera and the ideas behind it. An invitation to speak about the opera at Kogakkan University in Ise means that Nancy and I will travel to Japan later this month. The trip to Japan for me is probably the greatest and most unexpected reward that could ever have come out of the project and I’ll be blogging from Japan.

Will I miss Tokaido Road? I will miss the music and the words which I love, I will miss the people that I see less regularly and I will miss the nurturing of ‘my’ opera. Despite the fact that I didn’t compose it, direct it or design it, I have always felt a sort of parental love and responsibility towards Tokaido Road which never waned even in the toughest times (and believe me – they were many!) But now its all grown up and ready to move on – as am I, to more projects and challenges. Its been a joy, a pleasure and one heck of a life-changing learning curve for me. It has also been an affirmation that even in the most challenging climate for the Arts, things are still possible and that is something I shall certainly carry forwards. So I won’t conclude by saying this is the ‘end of the road’ because you never know…there may one day be a chance to revive it – I hope so. For now, its the end of one phase of a journey and I’d like to thank all my team and everyone who has helped make it happen for being a part of it.

Kate Romano

紙芝居 Kamishibai! Tokaido Road storytelling joins the journey…

Art into poetry….poetry into music….now Tokaido Road is now undergoing another transformation into an intimate theatrical story-telling version known as ‘Kamishibai’.

What is Kamishibai?

Kamishibai literally means ‘paper drama’. It is a form of story telling which originated in 12th century Japanese Buddhist temples when Monks used picture scrolls (emakimono) to tell stories with moral lessons to a mostly illiterate audience.

Whilst we don’t imagine our audiences to be in the least bit immoral or illiterate (!) we are delighted to bring to life our version of  this ancient form of communication  – another reincarnation of the Tokaido Road project. Kamishibai has long been a part of Japan’s culture, but experienced a new revival of interest in the 1920s -1950s. The kamishibai story-teller rode from village to village on a bicycle carrying a small box theatre. Inside the box are pictures, withdrawn one by one to illustrate the story.

Our Tokaido Road storyteller is mime artist and experienced Kamishibai presenter Tomoko Komura. Accompanied by live koto music performed by Okeanos’ Melissa Holding, our newest production re-tells the story of Hiroshige the artist and his travels on the Tokaido Road using large prints of Hiroshige’s own beautiful and iconic woodblock to set the scenes. Tomoko describes contemporary Kamishibai as ‘funny, highly communicative, full of pathos, empathy , sensitivity….friendly….a brilliant way to illustrate a story…’ Audiences described her inimitable story telling style as ‘wonderfully unique… imaginative…. surprisingly hilarious….lively…..one of the most exciting and moving experience…a tour-de-force of a performance’.

The premiere of Kamishibai: Tokaido Road took place at the magical WiseWords Festival garden on 6th September 2015. Next stop:  Wolverhampton Art Gallery on 30th October where we link up with their print exhibition of Hiroshige’s 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road (exhibition runs until 21st November) before touring to schools.

Tomoko Komura telling the story of Tokaido Road Kamishibai style!

Tomoko Komura at the WiseWords Festival telling the story of Tokaido Road Kamishibai style!

‘Meticulous…atmospheric…a triumph’..Another great review for Tokaido Road!

‘Staged at the Parabola Arts Centre, the first performance of Nicola LeFanu’s new music-theatre piece Tokaido Road was a festival highlight. Librettist Nancy Gaffield provided a text based on her own collection of poems. Incorporating narration, song and mime, the exquisite results were based on the life of the Japanese landscape artist Hiroshige’s woodblock print series 53 Stations of the Tokaido, and images of these pictures were screened above the live performance, adding another layer to the experience.

The principal protagonist is Hiroshige himself (baritone Jeremy Huw Williams), who appears as a young man, Hiro, making an epic journey and also as an old man recalling the trek. The women he encounters are Kikuyo, an apprentice geisha (soprano Raphaela Papadakis) and Mariko, a teahouse mistress (mezzo Caryl Hughes) and his memory is embodied by a mime artist (Tomoko Komura). At the end, the mime leaves as the old Hiroshige sings his own epitaph.

Written for the ensemble Okeanos, the instrumental accompaniment consisted of oboe/cor anglais, clarinet/bass clarinet, viola and cello, together with sho (Japanese mouth organ) and plucked koto. These forces, effectively blending western and Japanese instruments, were used sparingly, always adding point and colour, and sensitively conducted by Dominic Wheeler. The staging was meticulous and atmospheric, with director Caroline Clegg keeping the narrative flowing and allowing space for every character to communicate meaningfully. Tomoko Komura’s mime, combining grace and energy, was a particular delight. Tokaido Road was a true collaboration of several talents and a particular triumph for Nicola LeFanu, whose wisdom and experience illuminated this, her ninth score for the stage.’
Paul Conway – Musical Opinion

Private View at Beach Creative

Fabulous evening at Beach Creative in Herne Bay last night, at which Nancy Gaffield and Wynn White were In Conversation, talking about their individual as well as their collaborative processes on Tokaido Road.

Wynn’s photographs are currently being exhibited at Beach Creative as one of several events leading up to tomorrow’s performance at The Gulbenkian Theatre in Canterbury, and last night was the opportunity to get up close and personal with both Wynn and his images, as he took the assembled crowd through his creative process, interspersed with Nancy reading from her cycle of poems.

Thank you to Beach Creative for hosting Wynn’s exhibition, and for last night’s In Conversation; it all builds up to tomorrow night’s performance – see you there!

Exhibition of Wynn White’s photographs at Beach Creative

As the build-up to the performance of Tokaido Road at the Gulbenkian Theatre in Canterbury on Sat 23 May, we’re delighted that the satellite exhibition of Wynn White’s photographs is now open at Beach Creative in Herne Bay.

American-born now living in Japan, Wynn is a hands-on photographer using several historic printing techniques that are becoming increasingly rare; several of Wynn’s mesmerising photos are projected onto the stage during the opera; the exhibition at Beach Creative sets Wynn’s photos within the context of his work, and allows a wider appreciation of his creativity.

beach_creative_logoThe exhibition runs until 23 May; admission is free, find out more about Beach Creative here.


Five Questions: Kate Romano (producer)


1. What first attracted you to the idea of the Tokaido Road project?

I’ve been a founder member of Okeanos since 2000. I became more and more curious about our mix of Western and Japanese instruments and our collaborations with other art forms. What’s really happening when you put two cultures together, or a mix of art forms into the same space? When do such meetings become successful and meaningful (or not)? Do disparate elements amalgamate (ugh – that word ‘fusion’ which I don’t like) or can they retain their own identity and still add meaning to the whole?
I was looking for a project in which to explore these questions, but at that time (2012) I didn’t know we’d be creating an opera! Quite by chance, we came across Nancy Gaffield’s wonderful book of poems called Tokaido Road. I was excited by Hiroshige’s pictures (the ‘53 Stations of the Tokaido Road’) which inspired Nancy’s poems, the drama of the journey, the vibrancy of the Edo period. And I was captivated by this structural idea of art commenting on art commenting on art etc Maybe this was something we could translate into the concert hall? It started to feel less like a song cycle (the original plan!) and more like a drama, a narrative, a theatrical and musical journey. Paintings, poetry, music, photography, mime….all maintaining their own identity but pursuing one end – to tell the story of Hiroshige’s travels in their own language whilst ‘commenting on’ the other arts forms around them. I later found out that this process has a name – Tokaido Road is an exercise in ‘ekphrasis’ – one art form adding meaning to another. I’m incredibly proud of Tokaido Road – I think my team have told a wonderful timeless story and created a beautiful, elegant piece of music theatre out of my initial ponderings…

2. Tell us about your involvement in Tokaido Road.

I am the producer. Two years ago, I didn’t know what a producer did – or even that I was becoming one. I suspect that the definition of ‘producer’ is different for everyone who makes things happen, but I found it to be a (surprisingly) creative role and one I relished. Firstly, I had the challenge of wrapping up and summarising what we were setting out to do, then building the team to enable it all to happen. With Nancy as librettist, the next (obvious) choice was Nicola LeFanu as composer. I love her music and I felt she’d be the right person for this opera. We’ve got some incredible people working on Tokaido Road in every capacity – too many to list here – but they have all contributed so much. I organised all 8 touring performances, coordinated schedules, created the outreach projects, calculated the budget and then raised the money to make it all happen. It was a huge job, I won’t lie! It involved getting up at 4am for many months. It gave me many sleepless nights as well as moments of immense pride and pleasure. Oh, and I also perform in the opera – clarinet and bass clarinet. I am in the very strange position of being a producer who has never seen my opera live! Fortunately we’ve got a terrific film of it.
3. What excites you about contemporary arts?

Its an incredible time to be involved in making art. Last week I saw three breathtakingly good events: ENO ‘s Between Worlds, a children’s theatre production by Punchdrunk and Rioji Ikeda’s Supersymmetry. Each confirmed the staggering variety, imagination and quality of work being produced right now. And the 2015 Proms Programme… Wow! On the other hand, there are huge challenges facing everyone working in the arts. Its really tough and restrictive sometimes, but it certainly makes you think in very creative ways. Every penny has to work hard – producing the highest quality art, reaching as many people as possible in as as many ways as we can think of. I love highly engaging immersive theatre, I’m exploring more site-specific work and I really enjoy making education projects which usually involve a lot of home-made recycled props. I am constantly inspired by innovative museum and exhibition curators- especially those who bring everyday things into question. I love being part of an industry which is so responsive to the times we live in – we can make art anywhere out of anything. We can engage people in a hundred different ways. I don’t think art is there just to please everyone. I think art should enable you to ask questions and see the world in different ways.

4. What has the project taught you / shown you / made you aware of?

Where to start? It has taught me how to produce an opera – the practical and the personal matters. I have a far keener awareness of the challenges facing the arts industry. It has taught me more about myself – my motivation, my ambitions, my determination. It has enabled me to think in new ways about collaborative arts which I will take forwards. It has made me realise how much I love to tell a story and create worlds of wonder and curiosity. I’m like a big kid really – I just enjoy making stuff. It has resulted in friendships with extraordinarily talented people that will last a lifetime.

5. What relevance, for you, does the project have to today’s cultural environment?

Collaborative work is everywhere today. And there are fascinating groups who bring together more than one culture. I think that one of the most relevant and significant aspects of the opera was its ambition to ask how multiple art forms and cultures relate to each other in the same space. We thought long and hard about these relationships – ours with Japan, and those between the art forms. Regarding Japan, ultimately I have realised that we enjoy Japan like the ‘tourists’ we are: equally thrilled and fascinated by both similarities and differences. I think that in Tokaido Road we have created a new place – not Western, not Eastern, but somewhere unique to the story. I was very pleased that our Japanese audiences enjoyed Tokaido Road so much. On some ways, the artistic relationships were harder. There are moments in the opera where I think ‘oh, that was magical, we got that just right’ and others where the relationship between image, music and mime took much longer to balance and establish and we went round in circles before deciding on the final version. It was also vital to create a work which was malleable, portable and tourable. Like many projects today, we didn’t have the luxury of a run in a fixed venue so the opera had to be something that could adapt to all sorts of spaces. It has gone into theatres, a tiny church, the vast Great Hall in the British Museum. Its a model I’ll use again – flexible and simple stage design can still look incredibly beautiful. Finally, our outreach programme which is all starting this year aims to address all the different elements of the opera – story telling, travelling, music, poetry, Japan, music, mime…something for everyone!

Can I answer the question you didn’t ask? Would I do it all again? Yes – without a moment’s hesitation!