PROTOTYPE Festival 2023 Review: note to a friend

Japan Society Presents World Premiere of Opera Based on Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Texts

By Jennifer Pyron
(Credit: Richard Termine)

Japan Society, as part of Beth Morrison and Kristin Marting’s PROTOTYPE Festival 2023, presented the world premiere of Composer David Lang and Director Yoshi Oida’s newest opera, “note to a friend,” on January 12th, 14th and 15th.

Based on the texts of Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, in an invented way, this opera mirrored the complex subconsciousness of a dead man and reflected on the beautiful and immersive embodiment of sound as a process. “Note to a friend” set the bar for this year’s festival as David Lang’s prolific work investigated opera at a deeper level of emotional intelligence and awareness.

The Body of the Opera 

“Note to a friend” portrayed the afterlife of Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa as a monodrama. The libretto personified Akutagawa’s liminal state, somewhere outside of life and in the beginnings of unconscious death, as a realm of deep contemplation and configuration about the life he just lived. Theo Bleckmann, as the dead man, visited his friend, played by Cyrus Moshrefi, and began to tell all about his backstory and ultimate decision to commit suicide.

He was on this self-confessing mission, as the dead man, but very naturally lost his sense of pointedness while he inched closer towards absolute unconsciousness. The libretto brilliantly led the way.

In “people who kill themselves,” the second movement, the dead man explained his philosophical beliefs that supported his ultimate choice to die. In this, David Lang carefully pieced together the awakenings of Akutagawa’s inner self, based on the writer’s texts including “Note to a Certain Old Friend,” “Death Register” and “In a Grove,” to tell this complicated story. And he did so exceedingly well. It was as though listeners were learning for the first time about Akutagawa from a perspective he would have wanted to personally write as himself, the dead man. The opera felt spookily realistic and incorporated the humorous bite that most of Akutagawa’s writings embody at the core. Overall, his genius was matched by David Lang’s intuitive and intelligent investigation.

Most notable was how Lang’s postminimal composition strategically aligned each performer, including the lead singer, Theo Bleckmann, and the musicians, Kyoko Ogawa (Violin I), Tomotaka Seki (Violin II), Ayako Tahara (Viola), and Ayano Kaminura (Cello), in a very rich and beautiful atmosphere of continuous music paired with the libretto. In fact, every moment of this opera was an active connection to the music, with every single note being excruciatingly heartfelt, thoughtful and penetrating to the soul.

The opening violin passage in movement one, “prelude,” was reminiscent of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” It reached beyond the veil of the stage and immediately found solace in the heart of opera’s truest form, the powerful expression of pure emotion through music.

This new work was an invitation to honor the process of self-realization and encouraged new ideas around what makes the direction of an opera an “opera.” Director Yoshi Oida’s perception of Lang’s music also proved to be genius, in this case. He transcended the immemorial barrier between life and death by incorporating the beautiful aesthetics of Bleckmann’s fluid voice and physical movements. In this way, he melded together Bleckmann’s voice with his body as a meditation. The subconscious flow of the dead man’s nuanced physicality, thoughts, memories, and looping ideas of existential wonder always connected back to Lang’s music. Here, the body kept the score. 

Freedom and Beauty Through Self-Examination 

In movement three, “my mother had lost her mind,” Bleckmann’s voice described how the dead man’s mother mentally and eventually physically disintegrated beside him as a child. In doing so, Lang’s music created a window for listeners to peer into the heart of Akutagawa and emotionally translated his inner turmoil, when reasoning with death, into an opportunity to go even deeper.

In movements four and five, “I had a sister” and “amen (instrumental),” the composition focused more on allowing the four string players to tell the story. It was also at this point when a blank canvas on stage lit up as a projection screen and showed visual images of a young girl. While this was a way to connect audience members to the story, one might have felt a slight disconnect from the already established and very natural moments that this opera brought to the table from the start. Yoshi Oida’s attention to the fine details of the human body’s aesthetically powerful presence and Bleckmann’s voice was enough. The ability of this opera to honor the valuable presence of every cast member in the performance, including the musicians, made “note to a friend” special and undeniably remarkable. It felt like an intimate gathering of the most brilliant souls. 

In movements six and seven, “my father had a store” and “my mother my sister my father,” David Lang’s invaluable gift as an inventive composer really set the tone for the remainder of the opera. One might have felt like they were entranced by the luscious musical passages that hypnotically intertwined the string players with Bleckmann’s voice. There were many moments of absolute bliss that carried through to the very end. It is with a held breath that we must wait now for this opera’s recording to be released.

“Note to a friend” left a lasting impression in every sense. It resonated with the core of what it means to be human and how an opera can reflect the beauty of self-examination in a most uniquely present way.


ReviewsStage Reviews