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!

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: 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.

Let’s make an opera: just under three weeks to go

Rehearsals started in earnest yesterday for Tokaido Road, and with the premiere performance at this year’s Cheltenham Festival two weeks this Sunday, excitement is running high amongst the team.

After all the preparations, the funding applications, bureaucratic endeavour and lengthy incubation process, now the real fun begins.  The stage set has been delivered; fabulous costumes have arrived from Japan; the musical and technical teams are assembled, and we’re now in the rehearsal period in earnest.

Literary siblings

Literary siblings

Side by side, too, are the original book of poems on which the opera is based, and the recently-published opera libretto.

Find out more about the Cheltenham Festival premiere on the festival website here.

Not long to go now…