Sumidagawa / Curlew River
In the year 2045, Vancouver will have concluded a sea change. By that time, half our population will be of Asian descent. The present majority culture will become the minority. How will the city handle this? With fear, or with fortune?” Charles Barber
The Sumida River, or Sumidagawa, flows through Tokyo, Japan, ending its 27 kilometer journey by emptying into Tokyo Bay. The river gives its name to a well-known 15th-century Japanese noh play by Kanze Juro Motomasa. Sumidagawa belongs to the kyojo mono or “madwoman” subgenre of noh, where the source of madness is loss of a loved one, most often a child. Elsewhere in this repertoire, the woman finds her child alive and is freed from distraction by their happy reunion; Sumidagawa is tragic, the woman discovering that her child is dead.
During a visit to Japan in 1956, British composer Benjamin Britten attended a performance of Sumidagawa and was captivated, attending twice in one week. What enthralled him, apart from the poignant story, was the dedication and skill of the cast, the mixture of chant, speech, and song, the intense slowness of movement, and the economy of forces.
Long fascinated by challenges of economy and having already achieved amazing sonic and dramatic resonance with limited forces, Britten created a chamber opera version of Sumidagawa in 1964, re-titling it Curlew River and setting it in mediaeval East Anglia.
Essentially using the same narrative, although from a Christian, rather than Buddhist perspective, Curlew River also echoes technical features of Sumidagawa: he employs an all-male cast, mimics the stylized entrance of the players with a procession of Christian monks, and matches the ritualistic formality of the music.
The noh original of Sumidagawa was the inspiration for yet another adaptation, this time by internationally acclaimed butoh choreographer Natsu Nakajima, a student of the founders of butoh, Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata, and one of the first women in butoh. In 1994, Nakajima created the spellbinding solo Sumida River for Toronto dancer and choreographer Denise Fujiwara. Nakajima says of Sumidagawa, “For its Japanese audiences, the play is so well-known that a few simple references to the place, the season of the year, the boat, the boatman, and the distraught mother (perhaps only seeing the performer carry the bamboo that denotes her anguished state of mind) are sufficient to clue them into what they are seeing.”
Of her reinterpretation she comments, “The choreography does not attempt to narrate the story, but rather has sought to approach the core of the dance in a contemporary way through image and metaphor. We find the woman in the midst of a long, arduous and so far, fruitless search for her son. Her mind has been deranged by her anguish and the difficulty of her journey.”
Fujiwara’s performance of Sumida River was named the Best Dance Performance of 2000 by Toronto’s NOW Magazine.
When Vancouver’s City Opera set out to pair Sumidagawa with Curlew River for their 2010 season—a feat that had only been undertaken twice before, once in London and once in New York City—the intention was to mount the original noh version of the piece. In the process of finding a noh company that could perform the work, they discovered the existence of Nakajima’s butoh interpretation and made the decision to bring in Denise Fujiwara to perform it.
Charles Barber is a cofounder of City Opera and serves as both conductor and artistic director. He is excited about the upcoming performance on many levels.
“It’s a first in our country,” he says of Sumidagawa/Curlew River, “it crosses five centuries and two cultures in one narrative. The music is gorgeous, and the light design (by the extraordinary Robert Gardiner) is stunning and unique. And wait until you see what Robert and stage director John Wright are doing with the supertitles. I have never heard of such a technology before. It will be amazing, and very beautiful.
“I adore Britten’s music. He writes for the human voice as well as any composer I know. It is always an honour to give his music. Everything he writes is so wise, so alert, and so touching. Even by the standards of Benjamin Britten, great as he is, Curlew River is a masterpiece. The choral writing is unsurpassed. Members of the Vancouver Cantata Singers are our chorus. They make a stunning sound. So do leads John Minágro, Sam Marcaccini, and Joel Klein, all accompanied by a professional orchestra.”
Beyond the performance itself, though, he believes that the fusing of the two works is representative of a changing paradigm. “It speaks to the Vancouver we are becoming. If we get it right, at the end of the evening, our audience will discover what we share in suffering and beauty. Together.”
Barber believes that the arts have a role in examining societal shifts and helping to make sense of them. He also is determined to move beyond the safe and the expected to find new challenges. To that end, last year City Opera presented the BC premiere of the only opera known to have survived the Nazi camps, Der Kaiser von Atlantis. It played to rave reviews, five sold out houses and turnaway crowds, all in partnership with the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. He sees this new venture in a similar light.
“As a conductor, I always like doing work no one has done before. Here, we offer a double bill in a musical, visual and aesthetic bridge that has never been seen in Canada. I am extremely proud of our company, and our many partners, for taking it on. I am also proud that Vancouver understands and welcomes the importance of such a bi-cultural project. As I say, by 2045 half our population will be of Asian descent. We have to get it right, or we end up like Alabama.”
These grand words and concepts would remain just that however, without the artists capable of pulling it off and Barber believes that the performers he has pulled together will more than do justice to the works. Asked why people should make the trek out to the Frederic Wood Theatre at UBC, he answers with four words: “Denise Fujiwara. Isaiah Bell.”
In Denise Fujiwara, they have the butoh version of Madwoman. As Susan Walker writes in the Toronto Star: “There’s never a move that’s made, not so much as the blink of an eye, that’s without significance. The concentrated energy that she brings to her dance heightens details, so that each short solo is like a full-length drama. Employing butoh dance principles, she’s an ever-evolving expressionist painting in which hidden emotions rise to the surface and an inner life is briefly glimpsed.”
Tenor Isaiah Bell, who will play the role of Madwoman in Curlew River, is a rising star in the opera world. Raves Barber, “He is a phenomenally gifted young tenor. Years ago I was accompanist to tenor Richard Margison many, many times, and knew that one day he would sing at The Met, Covent Garden, and La Scala. Today, I know the same about Isaiah. He is THAT good.”
When asked how he sees the two disciplines, butoh and opera, coexisting in a performance, Barber is unequivocal: “They complement each other magically. The first half is butoh: all face, all movement, all grace and agony and visual eloquence in the telling of a great story. The second half is opera, telling the same story, but now all music, all light, aural eloquence in the same telling. Vancouver has never seen anything like it.”
With files from Harvey De Roo
Sumidagawa & Curlew River
May 26, 27 and 28 at 7:30pm. May 30 at 2:30pm.
Frederic Wood Theatre, UBC
$40.00 general, $26.00 student ID
or in person at Sikora’s Classical Records
432 West Hastings Street.
Notes Barber: Last year, many people left it too late, and could not get a seat at The Emperor of Atlantis. If you want to avoid that mistake, order your tickets now.
Sumidagawa & Curlew River is co-produced by City Opera, UBC Theatre and Film, and Blackbird Theatre. It is co-presented with support from explorASIAN, The Bulletin, the Japanese Language School and Hall, Nikkei Place, the Powell Street Festival, the Vancouver Cantata Singers, Accent Inns, and UBC’s Asian Studies and Alumni Association.