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!