Five Questions: Kate Romano (producer)

Kate_Romano_with_clarinet

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!

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Five Questions: Jeremy Huw Williams (role of Hiroshige)

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Jeremy Huw Williams as Hiroshige in rehearsal (June 2014)

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

I have always admired the lyrical music of the composer Nicola LeFanu, in particular her operatic works, having created the role of Domenico in her seventh opera, Dream Hunter. It has been a great honour for me to create the central role of Hiroshige in her latest opera, Tokaido Road, and the musical and theatrical experiences have been most rewarding. In much the same way as I was drawn to portray the role of Chou En-lai in John Adams’s opera, Nixon in China, I was immediately fascinated by the character of Hiroshige, a whistle-blower who evaded the Japanese censors by using beauty to reveal a reality that was not always pleasant. I have always loved the colour blue and could readily translate Hiroshige’s woodblock prints into a series of emotional blues in my mind that I could bring to life on the operatic stage.

2. Tell us about your involvement in Tokaido Road

I began discussing the project with the composer Nicola LeFanu in April 2012 and subsequently had discussions with the producer Kate Romano in September 2012. The more I read about Hiroshige the more I empathised with the man and his great artistic achievement and the difficult choices that he had to make along the road. My role combines the artist as a young man and an old man looking back on his life until his demise, a multi-dimensional role for any actor and an interesting challenge, physically and vocally. I was delighted to receive the score in March 2014 in preparation for the rehearsal period in June 2014 and the world premiere at the Cheltenham Festival in July 2014. We shall be touring the opera until October 2015.

3. What excites you about contemporary arts?

I have always had an interest in contemporary arts of all kinds. My PhD is in the analysis of contemporary vocal music. I have collected contemporary visual art for many years and am a regular auctioneer for several charities. I am on the board of the Andrew Logan Museum of Sculpture, Ty Cerdd (incorporating the Welsh Music Information Centre), Welsh Music Guild, Music in Hospitals Cymru/Wales and Welsh Chamber Orchestra. I was a National Advisor to the Arts Council of Wales for ten years, and a board member of National Dance Company Wales (a major contemporary dance company), Walton Trust, La Mortella Trust and Incorporated Society of Musicians. During the past twenty years I have commissioned more than fifty musical compositions. Working with creators of any kind is a thrill for me. I have never created anything myself. I consider it an honour and a duty to serve the composer, poet and librettist.

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

The opera invokes a special time and place through a beautiful combination of eastern and western instruments, coupled with western operatic singing, a fusion of cuisine for the eye and the ear. The projected images of Japan from the 1830s and the beautiful direction and design of the opera leave a lasting impression on both performers and audience alike. I am currently working in China, and am aware of the antecedents of many of these instruments and their music in the musical traditions of this great country. The concept of the alter ego is one that works beautifully in the opera, especially as we have such a talented Japanese actor in the cast who moves with such poise and grace.

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

This opera, which combines western and eastern performers, collaborators and musical instruments, as well as compositional styles, is a reflection of the increasing diversity in the culture of the United Kingdom, and many other parts of the world today. We live in a cosmopolitan society, and the arts can play a very large role in the homogenisation of our people, languages and traditions as we strive for mutual understanding and enrichment.

Five Questions: photographer Wynn White

Wynn White is an American fine art black and white photographer and printer living in Chiba, Japan. A selection of his beautiful images are projected alongside the historic Hiroshige woodblock prints in Tokaido Road. A particularly ‘hands on’ photographer,  Wynn does all of his own gelatin-silver processing and printing, getting involved in every step of the process. He also uses various historic techniques of printing, including salt, cyanotype, Vandyke, argyrotype and platinum/palladium.

 

Pier, New Year’s Morning (Wynn White)

Pier, New Year’s Morning (Wynn White)

 

See his work at: wynn@wynnwhitephoto.com

Forthcoming exhibitions: ART Photography ASIA, exhibition in Izu-Kogen May 1 to May 18 2014 https://www.facebook.com/artphotoasia.

A selection of Wynn’s Japanese photographs will form an exhibition at the Parabola Theatre in Cheltenham to coincide with the Tokaido Road premiere on 6th July 2014. As with all his work, the prints displayed are all handmade by Wynn in his darkroom.

 

Nihonbashi (Wynn White)

Nihonbashi (Wynn White)

 

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

 I first learned of the Tokaido Road project through Nancy Gaffield. We share a common love of Japan and both have been influenced greatly by the Japanese culture. After reading Nancy’s book I became excited at the prospect of my imagery being incorporated in the project.

Tell us about your involvement in Tokaido Road.

 My involvement in Tokaido Road has been solely on the visual side. I love it when images and music are effectively brought together and I’m doing my best to help make that happen in this project.

 What excites you about contemporary arts?

 To me all forms of art are an expression of life. Never before have artists had so many means of expressing their passion. Personally, it has been a chance to connect the line between the oldest photographic technologies with the most modern.

Purification Water at Shinshoji (Wynn White)

Purification Water at Shinshoji (Wynn White)

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

 This project has brought me back to Japan. Although I have lived in Japan for over thirty years, much of my recent work has been done outside of this country. It has brought me back home, so to speak. In thinking about the time that Ando Hiroshige’s wonderful ukyoe prints of Tokaido Gojusan Tsugi were made I looked back to photography at that time in the 1830’s. Ironically, Fox Talbot had just made his first photographic prints in that era. This inspired me to use the same techniques of old to produce my photographic prints for the accompanying exhibition. Since salt is the basis in Talbot’s printing technique I decided why not use the water of Tokyo Bay as the salting solution for my prints and I am pleased with the results.

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

This Tokaido Road project is a cross cultural celebration of the arts. It combines all of the arts with few language barriers. It can be enjoyed by young and old from all countries of the world. For me personally, Tokaido Road gives me the opportunity to share some of the cultural gains that I have made here in Japan with the rest of the world.

 

Sand Mound - Ginkakuji, Kyoto (Wynn White)

Sand Mound – Ginkakuji, Kyoto (Wynn White)

Five Questions: Nicola LeFanu

Five Questions to composer, Nicola LeFanu.


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

Nicola_LeFanu_PetersLots of things! The opportunity of working with Okeanos again, and the chance to discover writing for koto and sho. The poems – I loved them, and their relationship with the woodblock prints. I already knew Hiroshige’s work, so it was great to embark on a project that would showcase it. The chance to write a music theatre piece, which combined visual and aural elements equally. Whereas in opera, everything is structured through the singing voice, in music theatre it is a case of weaving together diverse strands. But in both opera and music theatre, it is the overall pacing that is crucial.

Tell us about your involvement in Tokaido Road.

As the composer, my job is to write the music! But it is a great deal more than that. Shaping the libretto and working with the librettist is at the heart of it. It was quite a long time before I discovered the dramatic focus that I wanted. When I realised that using that terrifying picture of the skulls and skeletons (The Vision of Kiyomori) was the key, things began to fall into place. In other words, Hiroshige was not only discovering the power of landscape painting, but he could bring home to people the truth of famine and persecution that existed because of the military government.

I love the fact that I am working in a team. Composing is solitary, but making theatre meant I could work with Nancy, with Caroline and Dominic. And the key person behind the whole project is Kate Romano. Nothing would have happened without her imagination and tenacity.

What excites you about contemporary arts?

That there us so much going on. It is a bit like the sixties, so much creativity and energy in so many fields. But it is harder than the sixties, as there is so much more bureaucracy now. We just got on and made things happen, without having to jump through so many hoops.

It is funny that people still tend to be derogatory about the sixties. I don’t think they understand what a heady time it was. In music, there were wonderful performers developing new repertoire, and so many opportunities for us who were beginning our professional careers.

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

As this is my eighth work of opera or music theatre, I suppose it has reminded me of how addictive I find it!

More seriously, it was fun to explore spoken text alongside sung text. I can’t bear spoken text in opera because it falsifies the whole nature of the medium. But in music theatre it works fine. And I loved exploring the koto in relation to the spoken text, it is such a resonant and expressive instrument.

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

I think I answered that already!

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.