T O K A I D O R O A D is a new multi-media chamber opera. Created and commissioned by Okeanos, this 50-minute work, composed by Nicola LeFanu with a libretto by Nancy Gaffield, is set in the rich, hedonistic ‘Floating World’ of Japan’s Edo period. A composite of music, poetry, mime, dance and visual imagery, Tokaido Road draws inspiration from the ravishing mix of art forms enjoyed by the wealthy members of Edo society.
In 1832 the young artist Hiroshige set out on Japan’s great Eastern sea-coast road: Tokaido Road, linking Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto. His paintings from the journey, the famous woodblock prints ‘Fifty Three Stations of the Tokaido’, made his fortune. Till then, prints depicted geisha or actors; now, the secrets of a hidden country were revealed. In the opera, we meet young Hiro discovering the landscape in all its perilous beauty. Through projected images, mime and sung poetry, we travel with him. The journey was dangerous: as well as contending with natural disasters – earthquake, flood – travellers had to scale cliffs and ford rivers. To constrain travel, the military government had forbidden bridge-building. Hiro savours all his adventures – not least the amorous ones – and his paintings bring to life everyone he met: old men and beautiful women, samurai and geisha, pilgrims, porters and passers-by. Hiroshige in old age is present in the opera too, reflecting on what had gripped his imagination twenty-five years earlier. Behind every welcoming inn and tea-house (‘station’) on the Tokaido, there was another story: persecution, dispossession, famine. Hiroshige braved the government censor by publishing prints that show the horror of death through starvation. His work reminds us of the power of art to bear witness.
Tokaido Road and Okeanos
The idea for the opera, Tokaido Road, grew from Nancy Gaffield’s award-winning book of poems of the same name. Nancy’s poems are exquisite miniature commentaries, reflecting on the characters in the prints, imagining what their lives might have been like. ‘Art commenting on Art’ (or ‘ekphrasis’ as it is known) became the theme of this 50 minute chamber work as the poems took on the form of a libretto. On stage, story-telling, music and mime are combined with images – old and new – and the opera aims to show how each genre can illustrate and illuminate others. For over ten years, Okeanos have worked with a unique mix of Western and Japanese instruments, believing that the ancient sho, koto, shakuhachi and biwa have a relevance and a role in contemporary music making.
In conceiving Tokaido Road, I was reminded of Italo Calvino’s words – coincidentally penned on his own trip along the Tokaido Road by train in the 1970s. No matter how well we try and get to know or understand a culture other than our own we can only really ever see it through the eyes of tourists. ‘Travelling does not help us much in understanding …but it does serve to reactivate for a second the use of our eyes, the visual reading of the world’. It is my greatest hope that in Tokaido Road, we can reactivate that sensory experience – musical, dramatic and visual – by perceiving differences. Like travelers on the Tokaido ourselves, we follow Hiroshige’s journey, meandering between centuries and enjoying the value we place on things that are new and strange to us.
Kate Romano (Tokaido Road Creative Director and clarinettist in Okeanos)
So many perished
How shall we remember them?
Step into the picture – I’ll show you the way.