In a final audio extract from Tokaido Road, the elderly painter, Hiroshige reflects, to a ghostly backdrop of harmonics, on the journey he took along the Road all those years ago; how he mourned his lover, the black-haired Kikuyo, and the bleakness of Kanbara.
In this extract, Hiro is played by Jeremy Huw Williams.
The London premiere of the opera is on Wednesday 25 February at the Barbican’s Milton Court Theatre: details here.
Photo: © Greg Trezise
Much excitement in Tokaido Road Towers as we reach the final milestone; a week to go until we premiere at this year’s Cheltenham Festival.
Yesterday, a few of us gathered to watch the dress rehearsal, the final event before we pack up and prepare to head to Cheltenham a week today. Both composer and librettist were present, looking excited, and as the lights dimmed, the figure of an elderly Hiroshige gazed out at us, whilst on-stage the members of Okeanos Ensemble were already seated, ready to play.
I’m not going to give much away about what unfolded next – you’ll just have to find out for yourself at next week’s premiere! – but the next fifty minutes offered a truly enchanting realisation of Nancy’s poems; it’s as if the libretto stretches the original poems out, affording the opportunity to delve deeper beneath the surface and explore a greater narrative nuance.
There are some memorable moments as you follow the young Hiro along the Tokaido Road, some wonderfully exotic soundscapes that Nicola LeFanu has distilled from the multi-instrument-juggling chamber ensemble, enhanced by several unusual instruments (keep an eye out for a particularly macabre percussion instrument that appears later in the piece!).
As the piece ended and the lights faded, there was a sense that we’d been taken to an emotional space that was quite something, in a meeting of Eastern and Western cultures that afforded a small glimpse into various points along Hiroshige’s journey along the Tokaido Road; each of us being led on our own, personal odyssey, writ large across the stage. The combination of Nicola’s shimmering soundworld and Nancy’s hypnotic words opens up an extraordinary landscape for the listener, mapping Hiro’s own travels but opening them out into something much more universal, a potent humanity that speaks to each of us across the years since the original prints captured these fragile instances in the Japanese countryside.
Now the production goes into especially-marked flight-cases, ready to embark on its own road to Cheltenham on Sunday 6 July, and various venues thereafter. Join us along The Road, and prepare for a mesmerising experience…
Boy, am I proud of this. Here’s the score and instrumental parts for Tokaido Road.
The Road starts here…
Tokaido Road is Nancy’s words, Nicola’s music, but I have a strong bond with this work. I like to think that I gave it some space to grow and goals to aspire to. I’m like a surrogate mother or doting aunt – there’s a duty of care in commissioning a new work. You have to nurture it. You want to see it flourish, contribute to a culture, speak to an audience, to be representative of its time. And like all new things, you want it to develop, grow, mature.
Tokaido Road was born of an artistic idea, a deep curiosity and an ambitious desire to change things. The relationship between Hiroshige’s prints and Nancy’s poems was already rich enough in artistic possibilities. The opera quickly became a framework for a set of questions: what is the ‘complex and murky relationship’ that exists between the arts? Tokaido Road is a study in extended ekphrasis, a term that describes the use of one art form to ‘comment on’ or ‘illustrate’ another. How does this translate across a second culture? I wanted to present this powerful cross-cultural, cross-arts synergy as a rich and highly accessible source of pleasure, entertainment and education rather than a misunderstood and sometimes marginalized form of art. I wanted to make casual media labeling (such as ‘fusion’, ‘experimental’, ‘fringe’), often used as a result of uncertainty surrounding music that juxtaposes different cultures, redundant. I wanted to create a project that would appeal to as many people in as many ways as possible.
Anyone who had raised funds for new music will empathise with the immense hard work and perseverance needed to enable a project to happen. But the journey has fascinated me – there are challenges and opportunities to be creative at every level, even from a project-management perspective. Today marked the end of the beginning: now the journey takes a new path and I can’t wait to see where it will take us.
Taking time out from her busy schedule of teaching and writing, I caught up with Nancy Gaffield and asked her about the impact turning her cycle of poems, Tokaido Road, into a libretto has had on her work.
What impact has creating a libretto from your cycle of poems had on the poems themselves ?
I was thinking about this, even before you asked the question. When you write, you are always aware that your work is going to be released into the world and become its own entity, although you’re not often mindful of this until you see a review! So you have no control over people or their responses to your work. But now I see people quoting my lines on Twitter! People are reading them in so many ways, and the poems take on a life of their own. Still, it’s surprising! Not negative; just surprising. Ownership is much more collective. I think Nicola now knows my poems better than I do…
Some of Hiroshige’s 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road, the inspiration for Nancy Gaffield’s award-winning cycle of poems, upon with the chamber opera is based.