Koto Performer Kento Iwasaki Develops His Concept of “Portable Opera”

Kento Iwasaki wants to change the way people watch opera. Born in Tokyo and raised in the U.S. and Canada, Iwasaki is a classically trained composer and koto performer who studied koto with Satomi Fukami and Yoko Reikano Kimura. He founded The Traveling Opera Company, an organization that envisions bringing opera to a variety of locations, not just limited to the theater. Through Iwasaki’s efforts, zoos, museums, art galleries, anime conventions, archways, and even resonant parking lots can be transformed into opera spaces in the near future. He calls his production “portable opera.”

The Traveling Opera Company’s first portable opera is Beloved Prey, based on a true story about a lioness who adopts a baby antelope and an antelope mother who seeks to rescue her child. Through this story The Traveling Opera Company explores what we consider human – such as emotion, compassion, and feeling – is actually very much animal.

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Iwasaki credits Alexis Kandra, an artist who paints predator animals sitting alongside prey animals, for the initial inspiration. “She’s the one who introduced me to the documentary Heart of the Lioness, which chronicled one instance of a lioness who adopted a prey animal after she lost her own child,” says Iwasaki. “I thought that would be a really interesting topic for an opera . . . I was also interested in making ‘portable operas’ that could be performed in a variety of spaces and influence the way the space itself was perceived.”

Iwasaki wrote Beloved Prey in collaboration with Cris Ryan, the production’s librettist and costume and mask designer. Ryan’s costume designs have been featured on Chinese national television shows, and he has worked under designer Matthew Hemesath on musicals and film productions such as Legally Blonde and John Wick. Ryan and Iwasaki attended the John Duffy Institute, where they received training in opera composition from Libby Larsen, John Corgliano, and Michael Korie, who inspired them to do an opera that “radically redefines what opera is.”

The word “opera” typically evokes images of actors in elaborate costumes in front of grandiose sets, singing in Italian and accompanied by large orchestras. Through his portable opera, Iwasaki wants to scale back on the theatrics and focus on the storytelling. His first move was to eliminate the orchestra and replace it with only the koto, violin, and percussion instruments.

“The koto is part of the sankyoku chamber music tradition [a form of Japanese chamber music played on shamisen, koto, and kokyū or shakuhachi, often with a vocal accompaniment], and it largely has been played in indoor, intimate settings,” says Iwasaki. “I think Noh theatre and Kabuki are the Japanese equivalent of opera, and I suppose you could say that Noh theatre is more for the nobility while Kabuki is more for the people. Noh theatre itself is also very portable. Opera, on the other hand, has the grand opera in the theater versus the arias and art songs that are performed in isolation in salon settings. I wanted to bring the theatrical element of opera to the salon music setting.”

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Beloved Prey performer HongKyung Kim. Photo by Samuel McMillan.

Developed last year through Iwasaki’s Exploring the Metropolis Composers’ Residency at Flushing Town Hall, Beloved Prey features masked singers in kimonos expressing our animal nature. Kandra developed a set of folding screens, making them collapsible so that they are easily transportable and can be staged in an instant. Iwasaki originally cast Sishel Claverie (lioness), Joy Tamayo (calf), Hirona Amamiya (doe and violin), and Maiko Hosoda (percussion), and he anticipates double casting the roles in the future so that there is flexibility in accommodating the performers’ schedules. This year BALAM Dance Theatre’s Toshinori Hamada, who was trained in Noh theatre, joined the production team as a choreographer.

Thus far Iwasaki has staged previews of the production at Flushing Town Hall and at the Brian Kish gallery upon the request of Sir Norman Rosenthal, an internationally renowned curator and art historian. The group recently performed in Times Square as part of the EtM Con Edison Composers Concert Series with chashama, at a private residence in Manhattan to launch Beloved Prey’s crowdfunding campaign, and at The Kitano Hotel as part of the opening reception of Ikebana International’s fall exhibition. As a result, the production team has already experienced performing in a variety of spaces, which is the crux of the concept of “portable opera.”

“It’s generally toughest in the smaller venues, making sure the performers have enough space to walk around the sets,” says Iwasaki. “When you perform in art galleries, one idea that I had was that I wanted the opera to be able to be watched even when standing . . . To do that I decided to make portable operas generally about half an hour acts. We also would like to take the opera to conventional theater spaces as well and let the sound carry throughout the hall.”

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Kento Iwasaki and Hirona Amamiya perform songs from Beloved Prey at Ikebana International’s opening ceremony at The Kitano Hotel.

The first full-length production of Beloved Prey premieres at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City on November 24. The group has received a grant from the Queens Council of the Arts, and last month Iwasaki began a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to create the set and costumes, rent rehearsal space, provide marketing for the project, and pay the performers. With a little over a week remaining, the campaign still needs a push to reach its goal of $8,000. To contribute, please visit the campaign’s website.

“Because it has only three main central characters, we were able to work with a smaller budget and spend more time to make [the set and costumes] more detailed,” says Iwasaki. “I really believe in quality over quantity in general in art, but I also wanted it to be resourceful so that we could work with a very small starting budget but not in a way that makes it look cheap.”

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Beloved Prey set piece by Alexis Kandra. Photo by Samuel McMillan.

Iwasaki’s ultimate goal with The Traveling Opera Company is to make the storytelling art form of opera accessible to anyone, anywhere. The portable opera can bring in new audiences, especially people who don’t live in large cities with opera houses. Although Beloved Prey is a fusion of old and new, East and West, the production can help opera gain new appeal.

“The genres change over time with people’s interest, and yet if there’s a connection between the older and the newer, then maybe people will be exposed enough to the tradition to seek the original forms as well,” says Iwasaki.