Natsume Soseki was a Japanese novelist whose works I Am a Cat, Botchan, and Kokoro among others earned him recognition as one of the greatest writers in modern Japanese literature. He spent two years studying in London under the auspices of the Japanese government and lectured in English literature at Tokyo Imperial University upon his return to Japan. After achieving success with his first two novels, Soseki became the head of the literary department at Asahi Shimbun. So beloved in Japan is Soseki that his face appeared on his native country’s 1,000-yen note (roughly $8.50) from 1984 until 2004.
As 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of Soseki’s death and 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of his birth, events have been held in Japan to commemorate and celebrate the Meiji-era scholar who was a keen observer of Japan’s conflict with becoming a modern, westernized nation.
Closer to home, Japan Society opened its 110th anniversary season with Four Nights of Dream, an opera based on Soseki’s Ten Nights of Dream, a collection of ten short stories published in 1908. The production, which occurred on three sold-out nights on September 13, 15, and 16, was the North American premiere of Tokyo-born, New York-based composer and librettist Moto Osada’s first full-length opera, which had its world premiere in 2008 in Sweden.
“Just like every other average Japanese kid, I discovered Natsume Soseki very early on, specifically when I was in elementary school,” says Osada, who holds degrees from NYU and the Manhattan School of Music. “On the most basic level, Soseki was such a skilled writer, and his language writing was really beautiful, especially in his later works. In his earlier works, his works were full of a sense of humor, full of poetic and fantastical imagery. I’m also drawn to his later works as well . . . in which he started to deal with darker and heavier subject matter such as conflict between an individual and the society surrounding them and the tragedy of humans brought on by having consciousness or anxiety or uneasiness about what is existence.”
Japan Society tasked Obie Award-winning theater-maker Alec Duffy with the direction of Osada’s production. Duffy, who directed Our Planet at Japan Society, assembled set designer Mimi Lien, costume designer Oana Botez, and lighting designer Tuce Yasak to stage Osada’s dreamlike opera.
“We’ve been dreaming together over the last few months how to bring this piece to life,” says Duffy.
Osada’s first encounter with Ten Nights of Dream was as a high school student, and it became one of his favorite works by the author “because it contains all the characteristics of Soseki’s writing in a very small package.” For the opera Osada selected four of the ten dreams – in the order of numbers 2, 10, 3, and 1 – saying, “They are very operatic and anti-operatic at the same time. They are operatic in the sense that they deal with either love/sex or death or both. Of course, those are traditional, conventional classic opera subject matter. They are anti-operatic in the sense that those stories are not really dramatic – not much happens. So I thought it would be interesting and at the same time challenging to make those stories into an opera.”
“Our opera has these four very different dreams of very different character,” says Duffy. “One is very dark and heavy, another is very light and colorful and to use them and put together an evening that takes you from sorrow to glee to despair to joy all in about 120 minutes.”
Here are JapanCulture•NYC’s Top 5 Things About Four Nights of Dream.
#5 You Don’t Need to Know the Stories Before You See the Opera
If you’ve never read Ten Nights of Dream, it won’t hinder your understanding of or appreciation for the production. The stories have serious, comical, eerie, and bizarre moments in them, so it’s important to remember that they are dreams. It’s unknown if the stories represent the actual dreams of Soseki, or if they are simply works of fiction.
“What the audience can experience is us taking that music and moving it into this dreamlike atmosphere where things are transforming onstage as they are watching, blending seamlessly from one story to the next, as if in a dream,” says Duffy. “These four dreams that are part of this opera, we’re looking to make them all one giant dream, as the way you would dream yourself.”
#4 The Music and the Voices
“I wanted to provide an outlet for those stories, exploiting the unique dimensions at the intersection of drama and music,” says Osada. “I wanted to create a work that is reflective of our time at the same time that carries on the great tradition of combining those two art forms, music and drama. But I also wanted to write a different type of music for each scene so that each scene would make the audience feel differently, providing a different atmosphere and to underscore the fact that those scenes are completely independent from each other. I wanted to come up with music that is simple and efficient.”
With Osada’s simple and efficient music, Ken-David Masur will conduct twelve musicians from the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan performing arts center, which co-commissioned the production. The Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony and the 2011 recipient of the Seiji Ozawa Conducting Fellowship at Tanglewood, Masur has worldwide experience, including conducting stints with the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo, the Japan Philharmonic, and the Hiroshima Symphony. The New York-based cast brings Soseki’s printed words to life through Osada’s poetic lyrics.
#3 The Fluidity of the Set
Mimi Lien, the first scenic designer to be named a McArthur Fellow, created the sets made entirely of columns for each of the scenes. The blocks of light wood smoothly transform, by being moved by the actors themselves, from a tatami mat room to a cliff, a forest, and an ethereal garden/graveyard.
Bonus: Although this has nothing to do with the actual set, Japan Society’s newly renovated auditorium boasts comfy seats to enhance the audience’s experience.
#2 The Costumes – Which Were Shockingly NOT Designed by Rei Kawakubo
Although the costumes are reminiscent of Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo’s landmark exhibition that recently ended at the Met, they were carefully researched and created by award-winning costume designer Oana Botez. The baggy wrappings and extra set of sleeves stand out in the second and fourth scenes, while the best costumes of the show are featured in the third scene: Monkish kimono with a ghostly forest pattern.
In the second scene – the tenth night in Soseki’s collection – the Panama hat-wearing Shoutarou, an attractive but lazy young man, has an encounter with a woman at a fruit shop, which leads to a precipice, which leads to a swarm of pigs. Although the pigs are frightening to Shoutarou, they’re actually cute. And what’s a Japanese production – even one based on a work that’s more than 100 years old – without something kawaii?