The first melodies I heard in my life were Japanese children's melodies my mother sang to me. Having recently moved from Japan to the United States with no TV or cassette player in the room, singing was the only way to keep the baby from crying. Though I have lived in the United States for most of my life, I have felt the influence of Japanese culture through my mother; through songs, writing traditional characters, TV shows, food, and spoken language. Japanese culture was a distant but present influence in my life in the United States, and often appeared in my dreams. Writing music came to be a way to unravel these dreams.
Nowadays, when I start a new piece, I ask for my mother's advice for sources of inspiration. She recommended the Japanese folk tale "Urashima Tarō." Urashima Tarō is a fisherman who rescues a turtle and is carried to an underwater Dragon Palace. The turtle then transforms into the Otohime, a beautiful princess, who beckons him to stay. Tarō stays in the Dragon Palace for 3 days before he becomes overwhelmed with a sense of filial duty and obligation to visit his parents. Otohime gives Tarō a mysterious tamatebako box as a parting gift which will protect him, but warns him never to open the box. He returns to his ocean-side village, and finds his parents' house occupied by strangers. Slowly Tarō discovers that he is 300 years in the future. Everyone he has known is long gone. In desperation, he opens the tamatebako box, and ages 300 years till he dies. Inside the box was his old age.
This story seems to “dream” about imperial China from a Japanese perspective. The Dragon Palace is called Ryūgū-jō in Japanese, and is the only name in the story with a Chinese style pronunciation. Additionally, the Dragon Palace is traditionally depicted as imperial Chinese architecture, in contrast to the rural Japanese fishing village where the rest of the legend is set. For this reason, I used Japanese traditional folk music to reference Tarō's journey with a grace note embellished melody. And in the middle section's aggressive A-D-G# motif I used Beijing Opera music to represent the Dragon Palace itself. These motifs develop throughout the piece to reach the story's astonishing and tragic conclusion.
Set in the Heian era and inspired by Mimei Ogawa's "The Mermaid's Red Candle", SHINJU is about a mermaid who grows up with human parents who make candles for a Shinto shrine. Longing to meet other mermaids, she runs away from home with a noble who has intentions to sell her to the emperor. A fisherman, mother mermaid and her human parents seek to rescue her. After the daughter mermaid is rescued, she in turn has to rescue the others; her mother's rage toward human atrocities to nature may consume the island in a summoned storm.
This re-invention of a Japanese tale draws upon traditional Japanese wisdom and culture to highlight the urgent need to recognize the "oncoming storm" of climate change and environmental disaster in our modern era. Shinju's story also illuminates the hope for a return to symbiotic and respectful relationships between humans and nature, playing upon traditional Japanese love and awe of nature's power, explored through the mermaids' supernatural powers to summon storms. Using the narrative of relationships between mermaids and humans, the opera hints at ways in which intercultural cooperation and understanding may be key to returning to a sustainable equilibrium in a world out of balance.
Featuring origami-like staging made by shibori-style cloth folded into representational sets, the opera's reusable, collapsible staging allows the opera to be performed in unconventional spaces, expanding the accessibility of opera to new audiences and venues. The costumes and music are both inspired by traditional Japanese artforms. The opera is inspired by anime and Japanese videogames, expressing Japanese traditional aesthetics in an accessible way for today's international youth. By interpreting the opera form in a vibrant new way to share traditional Japanese cultural narratives around nature that are deeply relevant today, SHINJU attempts to bring both opera and Japanese aesthetics to a broader audience for today's youth, drawing critical connections between our world today and the wisdom of traditional Japanese culture and sensibilities.
Tanabata: Star Festival of the Seventh Night
by Kento Watanabe
Performed by Reigakusha (ryūteki, hichiriki, shō), Momenta Quartet (string quartet), Cris Ryan (narrator), and Kyle Ritenauer (conductor).
“Tanabata” is a musical representation with spoken narration of the folklore surrounding the Japanese star festival called “Tanabata”. Tanabata means “evening of the seventh”, and celebrates the annual intersection of the stars Vega and Altair. The folklore is a romantic telling of this astrological event, where Vega and Altair are personalized as the Princess Orihime and the Cow-herder Hikoboshi. The story is about star-crossed lovers who are only allowed to meet once a year in the heavens. Orihime is represented by the Japanese flute “Ryuteki”, and Hikobishi by the bright, oboe-like “Hichiriki”. Orihime's father, who is the ruler of the heavens is represented by the Japanese mouth-organ “Sho”. Each of these instruments represent each of these characters behind a background of the string quartet, representing the space of the heavens. Narration of the folktale itself accompanies the whole piece, guiding the listener through the whole folktale.