Guided by the baton of conductor Kazushi Ono, a choir comprised of 48 members appear on stage, dressed like eerie phantoms with white masks and white bodysuits. Instead of the usual orchestral overture that begins an opera, powerful human voices without instrumental accompaniment let out an intermittent melody with lyrics that repeat the word “armageddon,” drawing the audience into a foreboding story about fear and uncertainty in times of crisis.

This is how the world premiere of “A Dream of Armageddon,” an opera composed by Dai Fujikura, began on Nov. 15 at the New National Theater, Tokyo (NNTT), around the time the capital began making headlines with its “third wave” of cases.

“I wanted my opera to start with a cappella after my librettist, Harry (Ross), a former opera singer, confirmed that there are hardly any operas like that,” Fujikura tells The Japan Times via video chat during the fourth day of a 14-day quarantine period after traveling to Japan from his base in London.

The composer, whose quarantine ended just in time to attend the premiere, had little trouble participating in rehearsals online from his hotel room in Tokyo. “No problem,” he says. “Actually, I’ve been collaborating with people via Skype for over 15 years.”

Composer Dai Fujikura | © SEIJI OKUMIYA
Composer Dai Fujikura | © SEIJI OKUMIYA

Born in Osaka in 1977, Fujikura left for the U.K. by himself at the age of 15 with dreams of becoming a composer. He has studied and worked there ever since, composing for prominent international music festivals such as the Salzburg Festival and the BBC Proms, as well as for orchestras and soloists from around the world.

“A Dream of Armageddon” is his third opera, following “Solaris” (2015) and “The Gold-Bug” (2018). The offer to write a new opera came from Ono, the artistic director of opera at NNTT, who requested a “story related to the present age.” During a conversation about suitable material, Fujikura suggested “A Dream of Armageddon” by H.G. Wells. The short story, first published in 1901, describes the kind of weapons of mass destruction and totalitarianism that would become a reality in the decades that followed. The universality of the issues raised in the story inspired Fujikura.

“Rather than a perfect masterpiece, the story is like a prototype, and that gave us room for imagination and adaptation,” Fujikura says.

To bring Wells’ story to life, Ono gave Fujikura the freedom to collaborate with his choice of experts, and so he invited his long-standing close collaborator, Ross, to write the libretto, while tapping up-and-coming stage director Lydia Steier to direct.

Fujikura says that during the process of creating the opera, the communication among the collaborators was frank.

“I asked Harry whether he really wanted to go faithfully with the original book when I read the first draft (of the libretto),” Fujikura recalls. With such feedback, their adaptation evolved, becoming bolder “while keeping the spirit of Wells’ original.”

One of the biggest changes from Wells’ story was the trajectories of the protagonists, particularly the female character, who was given a name and a more central role in moving the story forward. In the opera, the man recounting his nightmares, Cooper Hedon, has visions of Bella Loggia, his “dream woman.” Unlike Cooper, who is portrayed as an ordinary indecisive man who fails to act or change, Bella begins as a happy lover who develops into a revolutionary fighting against tyranny.

“When I shared this adaptation with Lydia, she thought it was a good idea, too,” Fujikura says.

Another new element was the addition of “The Willow Song,” an old English folk song about lost love, which appears in Shakespeare’s “Othello.” In Ross’ libretto, the lyrics are sung by an enigmatic character called the Cynic, who causes discord between Bella and Cooper.

“I thought there was no need for me to compose another ‘Willow Song’ because Giuseppe Verdi had already created a masterpiece for his ‘Otello.’ But Harry purposefully sent me a version by my least-favorite composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, which motivated me to compose my own version,” Fujikura says. Japanese tenor Tetsuya Mochizuki filled the role of the Cynic, delivering an impressive vocal performance.

Sweet dreams: Cooper, played by American tenor Peter Tantsits (left), dreams about enjoying a happy life with his lover, Bella, in the opera, 'A Dream of Armageddon.' | © MASAHIKO TERASHI / NEW NATIONAL THEATRE, TOKYO
Sweet dreams: Cooper, played by American tenor Peter Tantsits (left), dreams about enjoying a happy life with his lover, Bella, in the opera, ‘A Dream of Armageddon.’ | © MASAHIKO TERASHI / NEW NATIONAL THEATRE, TOKYO

Fujikura and Ross inspired each other throughout their collaboration, with the composer creating vivid music for each scene written by the librettist — from the uncomfortable conversation on the train as chilling strings and a clarinet’s repetitive tune play in the background, to an oddly septuple-meter “Waltz” in a dance hall and the destructive roars of brass, a barrage of snare drum beats, and vocal cheers and chants that burst forth on a battlefield.

Sensual duets by Bella and Cooper, performed by Australian soprano Jessica Aszodi and American tenor Peter Tantsits respectively, express the joy of being in love, accompanied by the thrilling sounds of a vibraphone and high-pitched tones of a string harmonic.

The speech song by the dictator Johnson Evesham, a role performed by American bass baritone Seth Carico, is an example of how the demagogue engages with the hearts of people through his persuasive smile, resonant voice and simple, memorable phrases.

Steier’s direction is also notable, as she successfully found ways to smoothly transition between scenes set in reality and those in dreams. Toward the end, the boundary between the two states becomes unclear, creating a nightmarish atmosphere.

Despite strict guidelines to prevent the spread of infection among the cast and crew amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Steier conveys the lovers’ sensual delight without them physically touching each other by using projected video clips and a large mirror. Additionally, the choir members — who play the militia belonging to “the Circle,” the dictator’s political cult — fill the stage as they sing and march with weapons in their hands, all while socially distancing.

The inescapable sense of uncertainty and fatal cost of inaction that Wells describes in his short story is clearly as relevant now as it was in 1901. When Fujikura began composing “A Dream of Armageddon” three years ago, the U.K. was in political turmoil as it attempted to move ahead with Brexit negotiations. At the time of the opera’s premiere, the world is in the grips of a pandemic with which the concept of freedom is threatened at many levels.

“When I was composing this, I never imagined today’s situations. But it’s perfect timing. Wells’ science fiction has become today’s reality,” Fujikura says.

“A Dream of Armageddon” will be performed at the New National Theater, Tokyo, on Nov. 21 and 23. For more information, visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp.

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