Five Questions: Nancy Gaffield

Launching a new column on the blog, we pose Five Questions to key people involved in Tokaido Road; this week, award-winning poet turned librettist, Nancy Gaffield.

Tell us about your involvement in Tokaido Road.

Nancy Gaffield

Nancy Gaffield

Almost exactly two years ago, I was contacted by Kate Romano (Okeanos) about the prospect of a musical piece around my book of poems, Tokaido Road. I was completely surprised by this, but also intrigued, and agreed to meet with Kate and Jinny Shaw in London to talk through their ideas. Kate and Jinny discovered my poems after a Guardian review, and they were keen to involve my work in an Okeanos project. By the end of that first meeting, Kate had sketched out a plan for me to re-work the poems (as librettist), with a composer writing a 50-minute chamber opera for Okeanos, to include traditional Japanese instruments and a visual element. It was also at that first meeting that Kate came up with the idea of approaching Nicola LeFanu as the composer.

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

I am not a musician, nor had I ever written a libretto before, but I have collaborated with musicians and am totally committed to the notion of cross-fertilisation in the arts, so I was completely fascinated. Re-writing the poems as a libretto, however, was a daunting task, and in the beginning I found it nearly impossible to do. Part of the reason for that is the narrative element—which although implicit in the poems, is not overt, nor did I want it to be, so it was a battle of will. Nicola was a huge help. We worked together, both in York and in Canterbury over three weekends, so it really is a composer-librettist creation, just as Kate originally envisaged it would be. This collaboration has been deeply rewarding.

What excites you about contemporary arts?

The broad spectrum—and the various ways that art speaks to the moment. It is a very exciting time to be involved in the arts in Kent now—Sounds New Music and Poetry, Wise Words, Zone, Free Range—just to name a few.

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

What this project has shown me is how hugely labour-intensive work like this is. When it was proposed that it would likely take two years from initial idea to the performance, I couldn’t believe it. Yet, what a wonderfully creative period it has been, and I cannot imagine a better team of people to work with.

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

For me the project speaks to the present cultural environment in several ways. First, there are shockingly low numbers of women in contemporary music—as players, as composers and conductors (in 2010, only 4.1% of new commissions were awarded to women composers, according to a recent Guardian article). Tokaido Road features a woman composer, librettist, and director. Moreover, it is a multi-media experience, with a composite of music, poetry, mime, dance and visual imagery and thus shows what exciting possibilities exist in cross-art collaborations. Finally, the opera deals with timeless themes: travel, discovery, love and loss; it reminds us of the power of art to bear witness.

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