Gill composer’s first opera tells timeless tale of Japan

  • Composer Michi Wiancko poses for a photo in her Gill studio with koto, keyboards and violin. Wiancko is composing an opera called “Murasaki’s Moon” based on the world’s first novel, “Tale of Genji,” that is set to be performed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in May. Contributed photo/Judd Greenstein

  • “Murasaki’s Moon,” an opera composed by Gill resident Michi Wiancki, will be performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Astor Court in May. Contributed photo/Stephanie Berger

  • A pair of six-panel folding screens painted by Tawaraya Sotatsu (circa 1570 to 1640) are on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of its “The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated” exhibit through June 16. The exhibit is being paired with an opera composed by Gill resident Michi Wiancko. Contributed image/Metropolitan Museum of Art

  • A pair of six-panel folding screens painted by Tawaraya Sotatsu (circa 1570 to 1640) are on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of its “The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated” exhibit through June 16. The exhibit is being paired with an opera composed by Gill resident Michi Wiancko. Contributed image/Metropolitan Museum of Art

For the Recorder
Published: 3/13/2019 5:11:19 PM

The world’s first novel, “Tale of Genji,” dates back 1,000 years to 11th-century Japan, and yet it continues to inspire creative thinkers of today — including one from Franklin County.

Poetically written in an archaic form of Japanese, the 1,300-page book tells the 70-year story of the love affairs and political rise of the emperor’s son, Hikaru Genji. The psychological novel describes the forbidden love Genji has for one of his father’s concubines, and his numerous affairs, exploring the strict social codes of the time period.

Written by a noblewoman and lady-in-waiting, Murasaki Shikibu, the literary classic is a masterpiece of ancient Japanese culture.

It’s also the subject of an opera being composed by Gill violinist and Antenna Cloud Co-Creator Michi Wianko to be performed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Making connections through the centuries

Wiancko, whose mother is Japanese, said she was aware of the book while growing up in southern California, but had never completely read it before being commissioned by the museum to craft an opera as part of its “The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated” exhibit that is on display through June 16.

“It was a book that was on our coffee table when I was growing up,” Wiancko said. “In Japan, it’s in every curriculum, and a lot of people I know read it in college. But I remember flipping through the pages, and remember seeing the ancient Japanese artwork.”

Wiancko spent a couple of months imagining the new opera’s music with librettist Deborah Brevoort, who has turned “Tale of Genji” into a theatrical story for the costumed production. Wiancko’s Gill farmhouse studio began filling with charts and notes hanging on the walls, along with musical instruments as she experimented with the ingredients to cook up her first-ever opera.

“Murasaki’s Moon,” a co-production of American Lyric Opera and On Site Opera, will be presented in six performances May 17 to 19 featuring The Azuri Quartet, which is in residence at the museum and appeared last summer at the Antenna Cloud music retreat and concert series in Gill. All performances are currently sold out.

As a classically trained violinist focused increasingly on performing and composing new music for NOW Ensemble and her own band, Kono Michi, Wiancko is an artist who feels a connection with the story presented in this contemporary take on the timeless Japanese tale.

The character “is passionate about writing, but it’s something women aren’t supposed to do,” Wiancko said. “(Murasaki Shikibu) created the fictional character, Genji, who from our lens is a total womanizer. … He goes around and charms the pants off everybody.”

The new opera’s libretto, though, focuses on Murasaki — the character believed to be based on the author herself — as a lonely, outcast woman who lacked the wealth, beauty and status that was believed to be essential for Japanese women of that time.

“She feels there must be more to life; you can hear that in her writing,” Wiancko said. “It’s a human connection we can make with somebody who was alive so incredibly long ago. That’s the part that interests me. She was finding her outlet in her art — in her writing — rather than … on physical appearance and trying to be ‘the perfect woman.’”

That cultural focus was so traditionally central and universal that one of the opera’s arias is “The Perfect Woman.”

For Wiancko, whose continuous evolution as a performer and composer has led to collaborating and performing with musicians and organizations as varied as Yo-Yo Ma and Silk Road Ensemble, Ecstatic Music Festival, Liquid Music and the indie rock band Wye Oak — as well as creating Antenna Cloud with her husband, composer Judd Greenstein — defining her own art is a trait she shares with 11th-century Murasaki.

“I definitely relate to her,” said the composer, who’s been composing while pregnant with her second child, due just two weeks after the opera’s premiere.

Discovering music’s power, and a part of herself

“Murasaki’s Moon” is composed for a mezzo-soprano and tenor, singing in English the roles of the story’s two main characters, with scoring for a Japanese bamboo flute, zither-like koto, giant taiko drum and percussion, along with the Grammy-nominated Aizuri String Quartet.

“The idea was to get a mix of western and eastern instruments and sensibilities. That’s what I naturally do because of my heritage,” said Wiancko, the daughter of Japanese and Polish-American parents. “I’m just writing music that feels really true to myself and happens to be perfect for this particular project.”

For this project, Wiancko said, “I got around three months alone where I buckled down and started working on the score. I turned in my first draft and had a week-long series of workshops with a pianist playing a piano reduction of the orchestral score, with our two vocalists.”

In mid-December, the production team began discussing the musical structure of the work and the story being conveyed. What followed was a succession of tweaks made with Brevoort, “because every time I write music to the libretto and the libretto changes, I have to go in with my surgical gloves and cut it apart to rejigger the whole thing,” Wiancko said. “The pacing and rhythm of the words is interesting to work with. … I’ll send her an e-mail: ‘I need one more syllable here!’ ‘I need to cut out two syllables here.’”

After orchestrations, there were workshops with the musicians, all moving toward a final deadline in April and rehearsals leading to the mid-May performance.

“When I saw the whole process written out in my contract, it was pretty overwhelming,” Wiancko recalled. “I was feeling so honored that the curator trusted me with something like this. As the project unfolds, I feel I’m really the right person for the job. Now that I’m in, it all makes so much sense.”

Ultimately, she said, “A big part of my learning process has been to see just how powerful music is in opera. You could have the same line, and depending on what music is there, it could be the most heartbreaking, heartwrenching, serious thing, or it could be hilarious and you actually want to laugh out loud! I’d have thought it was the words, but it’s actually the music that determines how you’re going to receive the words.”

Reflecting on the musicality of the language, and the beauty of Murasaki’s poetic writing from a long-gone era that can’t quite be captured in English, Wiancko said, “I really wish my Japanese skills were more advanced so that I could read it in Japanese, because I think it’s a totally different thing. We become focused more on plot points, and who’s doing what, while it’s not really about the action.”

The project has become an exploration of her identity, leading Wiancko to think about her complex connection to Japanese culture. She’s come to peace with aspects of what she’d taken for granted as part of her life growing up, like learning the language at home, cooking Japanese food and frequent visits to Japan.

“It was just always there,” Wiancko said. She’s already taught her daughter some Japanese words, and wants her children to know and appreciate their heritage.

“There were some things I had to do before starting this project, giving myself permission to put my own stamp on it and not feel I had to stay confined in a particular genre or particular Japanese sound,” Wiancko said. “I had to give myself permission to work within my own aesthetic and my own sound. It made me ask questions I didn’t really ask before.

“I feel more Japanese now,” she added. “It’s just a question of how to make it richer, more intentional.”


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