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!

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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.