To Sleep, Perchance to Dream: Composer Moto Osada’s New Opera at the Japan Society

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It is such stuff as dreams are made on.

This week, the Japan Society in New York City plays host to the North American premiere of eminent Japanese composer Moto Osada’s opera Four Nights of Dream. Ironically, given the title, the run is for only three nights – Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, September 13, 15 and 16, all at 7:30 p.m., but it bids fair to be a memorable Western prelude the opera’s premiere in Tokyo later this year.

The inspiration for the opera is a literary work entitled Yume Jū-ya by classic Japanese novelist and fabulist Natsume Soseki, active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and widely considered perhaps Japan’s greatest post-Meiji Restoration man of letters. Through 2004, his portrait even graced Japan’s 1,000-yen currency note. Strangely, however, it is only in the 21st century that Soseki’s work has been more widely recognized and his cult caught on outside of his native Japan.

Ten’ll Get You Four

The title Yume Jū-ya translates as “Ten Night’s Dreams,” and it proves to be a hypnotic, mysterious, and varied tapestry of prose visions that do capture the elusive texture of dream experience, while spinning strangely affecting miniature yarns – some of a dark and delicate poignancy; others fierce, passionate, and even humorous.

Moto Osada © Markus Gårder

Composer Moto Osada recalls the genesis of his interest in the work of Soseki as a youngster. “I remember encountering his Kokoro [“Heart”] at the school library in elementary school,” Osada says. “It is a heavy, dark work and I was only eleven or twelve. Of course I didn’t understand much of it, but I remember being really drawn to its somber tone.”

While the historical allegory Kokoro may be Soseki’s most famous work, the episodes of the more compact Ten Nights’ Dreams certainly suggest theatrical magic and invite ingenuity, resourcefulness and wild imagination in the transfer to the opera stage.

“It’s a pretty extraordinary opportunity for a theater director,” says Alec Duffy, the Brooklyn-based artistic director of the Hoi Polloi company who has been tapped by the Japan Society to stage Osada’s opera here.

“We’ve tried to build a dream world on stage,” Duffy says. “An experience that doesn’t necessarily feel like traditional opera – something with an edge.”

Dreams East and West

“Chorus” – Costume design by Oana Botez

Duffy, himself a musician and composer as well as theater director, speaks with admiration of the “fantastic collision of Eastern and Western influences” in Osada’s score for Four Nights of Dream – a characterization of his work that Osada fully embraces. Growing up musically precocious, he cites eclectic youthful influences from the West that included Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Prince, and Miles Davis, Stravinsky, Bartók, Bach and Ligeti.

“I would describe my compositional approach as ‘pragmatic,'” Osada explains. “I employ any means to achieve my ends,” which, for the morphing and shape-shifting texture of Four Nights of Dream include everything from tonal and modal harmonic structures to the employment of aleatory strategies.

But most particularly, as inspiration for the setting of his English text (the libretto is by Osada himself, based on English translations of the Soseki work), Osada looked to Benjamin Britten.

“I specifically studied the chamber operas by Benjamin Britten,” Osada says. “His operas are of course in English, as Four Nights is, and the instrumentation is also similar. It was important for me to understand the inherent sonic attributes of English because it is not my first language, and I thought that Britten was a master of setting English texts to music.”

And, for good measure, Osada adds, “I also studied Gershwin and the Beatles.”

Dream Factory

And what influence, if any, did Osada’s own dream life exert on the composition of Four Nights of Dream?

“Woman” – Costume design by Oana Botez

“I am one of those people who enjoy their lives more when asleep than when awake,” Osada confides.

“I definitely need seven to eight hours of sleep every day, and I will sacrifice almost anything to obtain my sleeping time. Consequently I dream a lot in my sleep and, to be honest with you, I get excited when I go to sleep every night, wondering what kind of dreams I will have” – further illumination of why the gnomic challenge of adapting Soseki was so ripe for the workings of Osada’s unique artistic wheelhouse.

“Of course not all dreams I have are good and fun,” Osada reveals. “Sometimes I have a nightmare or very weird dream. Waking up in the middle of the night, at that moment, I am not sure where the dream ends and where the reality begins. So you can see why I am attracted to Soseki’s Ten Nights so much.”

Osada and Soseki – dream team indeed.

Dream Time

Four Nights of Dream was originally commissioned by Sweden’s Vadstena Academy, where it premiered in 2008; but this new production – co-produced by Tokyo’s Bunka Kaikan, where it will be performed in late September and early October – boasts not only Alec Duffy’s new staging, but beautifully evocative sets designs by Mimi Lien; costumes by Oana Botez; and lighting by Tuce Yasak.

The Japan Society is located at 333 East 47th Street in New York City. And, while the three upcoming performances of Four Nights of Dream are currently listed as “sold out,” there will be waiting list positions accepted one hour prior to each performance.

Additional information is available at www.japansociety.org/event/four-nights-of-dream.

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About Author

Charles Geyer is a director, producer, composer, playwright, actor, singer, and freelance writer based in New York City. He directed the Evelyn La Quaif Norma for Verismo Opera Association of New Jersey, and the New York premiere of Ray Bradbury’s opera adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. His cabaret musical on the life of silent screen siren Louise Brooks played to acclaim in L.A. He has appeared on Broadway, off-Broadway and regionally. He is an alum of the Commercial Theatre Institute and was on the board of the American National Theatre. He is a graduate of Yale University and attended Harvard's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. He can be contacted here.

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