Review by Paweł Jędrzejko from „Presto”, 27.09.2020
A VERMILION CALM: THE "GENETIC" EXPERIMENT BY KEIKO FUJIIE
On September 19th 2020, at the Center for Performing Arts Piekarnia in Wrocław, the premiere of an extraordinary opera was held - minimalistic, but full of existential metaphors, by the excellent Keiko Fujiie, in an extremely sensitive, refined direction by Pia Partum, to whom Japanese composer gave full creative freedom, which was perfectly executed.
“A Vermilion Calm" - this is how the title of this two-act, consisting of a prologue, twelve arias and an epilogue work - combines the traditions of the East and the West in all harmonious compositional layers: musical, textual, staging and visual. The effect of this synergy is a unique vision of the human condition, entangled in the variability of samsara, but at the same time conditioned by an ego-free, indescribable, extra-linguistic - nirvana.
Everything is delicate here. Classical guitar in the hands of Kanahi Yamashita enters into a subtle dialogue with the cello of the
great Jan Skopowski, to intertwine unexpectedly with the hypnotic sounds of Retsuzan Tanabi's
shakuhachi flute, and then submit
to the soft harmony of the voices of Bogadan Makal, Łukasz Klimczak, Jakub Michalski and Tomasz Łykowski, and the whole is complemented by the versatile piano by Justyna Skoczek. It is in this musical context that two leading voices are composed: the warm mezzo-soprano of the perfect Urszula Kryger and the extraordinary, moving countertenor Jan Jakub Monowid, who played the role of the Poet, and who, as Keiko Fujiie points out, was the source of inspiration for the final version of the work.
When we were invited (together with her husband, legendary guitarist Kazuhito Yamashita and daughter Kanahi Yamashita - reviewer's note) to participate in the international Silesian Guitar Autumn festival in Tychy, we took the opportunity to visit the NOSPR in Katowice - says the composer. That evening, the invited guest Jan Jakub Monowid, whose voice delighted Fujiie, performed with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. - His countertenor is different from all the others - says the artist. The singer impresses with his "vast scale", but although he sings high, his voice remains "absolutely" masculine "". - Since then - continues the artist - I visited Warsaw twice to participate in opera performances in which the singer performed. I wanted to listen carefully to the timbre of his voice and get to know his technique, because in my mind the idea of a complete revision of the opera that was being created at that time was already budding, with the idea that it was Jan Jakub Monowid who would sing the main role in it. The initial version of the opera, for which I created the libretto myself in Japanese, included parts for tenor, guitar and shakuhachi, but after listening to the Polish singer, I suddenly realized that his voice suited the role of the Poet perfectly. And with this in mind, I changed the entire composition.
In fact, Fujiie's intuition works perfectly well. Monowid's voice is a medium by which the composer manages to introduce an element of transgression into the work. Aware that the parts sung today by countertenors in classical music were often performed by castrates and that the scale of the countertenor is similar to that of "traditional" female sopranos, Fujiie herself emphasizes that this voice is to "bring to mind youth - but at the same time cross the boundaries of fossilized category ". - My story - explains the creator - suggests a kind of marriage between what is human and what is inhuman, but on a slightly more down-to-earth level. It shows the one-sided nature of love, the blindness in relationships, delusions and daydreams, and finally the loss of power. It is a story about the unstable, ever changing borders of sea and land, humanity and wild nature, masculinity and femininity.
These subtle moments of transcendence are clearly noticed by the Poet, whose sensitivity allows him to see and understand more than others do. It guides us through youth, love, maturation, fruiting and death (solar eclipse), which becomes the vermillion gate of the Shinto temple: a place of meditation and insight into the crevices of being, undulating like wind- moved, discontinuous sheets of material, constituting the mise-en-scene of the whole opera. The Poet's feet, buried in the icy sand of a winter beach, feel the force of gravity; his gaze, however, drowns in the eyes of the girl walking on the beach - his gaze breaks away from the cold "here and now", from the silent, non-interpretable being. However, the Girl – just like all the actors of this philosophical production - is a screen for the Poet's projection. Dressed in white, she does not stand out from the white background herself: she is "noticeable" only moments at a time. Though she stands in full light, she disappears whenever the blacks and grayscale of the film projected hide her completely.
The Poet's eyesight, however, gives her distinctive features, although it also, paradoxically,
deprives her of her autonomy. The Girl, falls asleep with a touching lullaby, although visible to us, disappears again –this time in the arms of the Poet.
The metaphysical anesthetic of love poetry soon ceases to work: naïve youth yields to maturity measured by the number of scarred wounds. The Girl is inevitably maturing; symbolically - her once white skirt turns red. As a woman, she achieves the perfection of a fruit which, hiding the seed of another cycle, must die for reality to continue. Now fully mature, she spreads her wings and transforms in front of the eyes of the Poet into something that she has always been or has never been: her "dim colors" give way to the expressive color of a beautiful vermillion warbler. Slowly the Poet begins to understand Mother Nature's singing and echoes her in a moving, no longer human duet. The longing "olekuleleku" is not a "sung word", it is a transcendent understanding without words, or perhaps beyond words. A beautiful bird swims slowly over the mirror-smooth surface of a calm sea, farther and farther, to the point where there is no turning back. It blends into a new, vermillion dawn, in which it dissolves completely when the sun, free from the moon's shadow, floods the world red. Then the scales finally fall from the Poet's eyes.
Poetic transformations are accompanied by a subtle harmony of the a cappella quartet inspired by the music of the Polish Banana Boat band. The Guardians of the North, South, East and West, like the Greek choir beyond time, take on different roles - but they come and go directed by the will of the Poet. The question of Poet’s agency is clearly visible in the confrontation of his "movement" with the "stillness" of the constantly present on stage, frozen in the lotus position, meditating elemental master Retsuzana Tanabi, who will remind us of himself just standing up once. Then we notice that it is his "non-European" shakuhachi that opens the cracks of reality: it is the wind awakened by him that blows away the seemingly uniform screen of the stage reality on which our projections undulate, but behind which lies an unnamed void. It is in this form that the great circle of nirvana and samsara closes - but it is also he who, constantly escapes our "western" attention due to his permanence. The poet does not notice him for a long time. Mother Nature has been working with him from the very beginning - and all voices and instruments resonate with him.
Of course, this reading of Keiko Fujiie's opera is also purely a private projection - but a
projection inspired partly by the opera's libretto, which was created in collaboration with the the American instrumentalist and music teacher Laurie Randolph
living in Berlin. Keiko Fujiie says about this collaboration as follows: - First, I translated my Japanese libretto into English myself, supplementing the opera
with a few arias and an epilogue, for which I wrote the lyrics in English straight away (therefore there are no Japanese versions of these pieces). Then I asked
Laurie to make a linguistic proofreading of my translation. But, as is usual with native speakers, they would like to improve everything! That is why working with
a libretto and reaching consensus took both of us almost three years.
However, in the course of these activities, we both understood how differently we think and how differently we interpret reality when looking at it through the prism of our native languages.
The difference, to our mutual surprise, turned out to be huge. But we already had the melodies to which the language of the libretto had to be adapted to be sung. Naturally, in many places I had to modify the melody to suit Laurie's requirements and the character of the text.
Eventually my hero (Poet) became a kind of hybrid: his features are Western, but his DNA is still Japanese.
A Vermilion Calm, Keiko Fujiie's "genetic" experiment, was ultimately all too successful. Going beyond the boundaries set by the inherited and encoded in language system of values embedded in Buddhism, Shinto, Tao and Confucianism of Japanese culture, but at the same time breaking the expectations of a European music lover rooted in Greco- Judeo-Christian categories of Western culture, the Japanese composer confirms that she is a world-class composer. It is impossible to crush Fujiie's work into the narrow framework of a single culture, a binary understanding of gender or an anthropocentric system of values. However, one can - and should - submit to its meditative silence, in order to see in a deep peace of mind what is most important to each of us.