As part of its 40th-anniversary celebrations, Kanagawa Kenmin Hall in Yokohama will stage a world-premier version of “Legend of the Water Flame,” an opera by the renowned composer Toshi Ichiyanagi that’s scored around a libretto by a fellow octogenarian, the poet Makoto Ooka.

“Opera has an image of being Western, with a fixed style, but I want people to see this as a new total work of art. I want to make it something where various fields come together,” said Ichiyanagi, who released a piano version of the music in 2005, though the upcoming performances will the first-ever in orchestral form.

And indeed, Ichiyanagi — who is also the general artistic director of Kanagawa Arts Foundation, which manages the public hall — has certainly brought a wide range of top-class talents to this work.

The direction, choreography and chic black-and-white set design in the compact hall’s white space is, for instance, by the dancer and choreographer Megumi Nakamura, who is now active in Japan since returning from the Netherlands Dance Theatre; while the singers’ and dancers’ costumes by world-class fashion designer Yoshiki Hishinuma provide a glorious effect.

Explaining to this writer during rehearsals recently why he awarded such key roles to Nakamura, Ichiyanagi said, “When I was living in New York (in the 1950s), my teacher, the (avant-garde U.S.) composer John Cage, was music director for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and I worked there as a pianist at its school, and also played for the troupe’s productions. At that time, many talented European dancers were going to America, and that gave me an affinity for dance.”

For Nakamura, though, opera has clearly presented a steep learning curve.

“Dance is a visual art — but in opera, the way songs directly impact the body of the listener is fresh for me, though the singers give me lots of suggestions,” she said. “So things you can’t do with music alone, and things you can’t do with direction alone connect together, and those moments when time and space warp are being created in the rehearsal space. Now I want to get them established in time for the stage performance.”

Ichiyanagi seemed satisfied with the process, saying, “I’ve seen the rehearsal, and it felt like there was a lot of very spontaneous expression. I feel it matches the way Ooka’s script flows.”

The heroine of the work is Akatoki Otome, a personification of beauty and the precious moment of dawn (akatoki in Japanese).

Though courted by both a “white-faced man” from the land of day and a “black-faced man” from the land of night, she dies and falls into Hades, where she meets her older sister Tokoyo, a personification of darkness and eternity who is as ugly as she is beautiful. However, Tokoyo does the heroine a great service by chasing her back to the surface in the climax to this symbolic drama about the momentary and the eternal — and such issues we also face in life.

“Realistic time and time on a deep level of consciousness flow side by side here, and there are many layers of music and direction where condensed, small moments compete against large pieces of time,” Nakamura noted. “In the end, Akatoki returns to the surface and is restored to life, but the one who has true possession of eternity is the dead Tokoyo — so as a story, there are strange elements.

“Yet in the end, the act of living is hard to grasp and hard to understand, and I want to deliver that mystery and energy to the audience.”

To this, the composer added, “It’s said that music is an art of time, and architecture and art ones of space. But unlike when hierarchical systems and churches determined the development of music, the artistic challenge now is to make use of space in a vertical sense rather than through the horizontal flow of time.

“In this regard, Nakamura’s direction is very three-dimensional and splendid,” Ichiyanagi declared — adding that, “People often say ‘culture and art’ are important, but I think it should be ‘culture, civilization and art,’ as contemporary people can’t survive without civilization. That’s why I chose such a mythical and universal theme.”

“Legend of the Water Flame” is being staged Jan. 17-18 at Kanagawa Kenmin Hall in Yokohama. For details, call 0570-015-415 or visit www.kanagawa-kenminhall.com. This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.