Opera came quite late in Dai Fujikura’s career as a composer. His prolific output includes everything from works for orchestra, concertos – his Flute Concerto (2015) recently won the Ivors Composers Award – string quartets, works for choir and an array of original solo pieces for unusual instruments such as double bass, shamisen, French horn and bassoon. But he only tackled his first opera, Solaris (based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel), seven years ago. Strangely he was never interested in traditional opera – he was more interested in film music when he was growing up – but when he started on Solaris, he knew that “this was something I wanted to do all along.”

Dai Fujikura © Alf Solbakken
Dai Fujikura
© Alf Solbakken

Since then, he hasn’t looked back. His second opera soon followed, a children’s opera, The Gold-Bug, for Theater Basel and his latest work, A Dream of Armageddon, is a new commission from New National Theatre Tokyo. It will be premiered this November, conducted by its Artistic Director Kazushi Ono, with a cast including Peter Tantsits and Jessica Aszodi.

A Dream of Armageddon is adapted from a short story written in 1901 by British author H.G. Wells. The story is about a totalitarian state at war, which is described through a conversation between two strangers on a train. Cooper starts telling Fortnum about a futuristic dream he had where he meets a beautiful girl, Bella, on the island of Capri, but soon war breaks out... The drama moves in and out of a dreamscape and one is never sure of what is fact and what is imagined.

Why did Dai choose this little-known story? “When conductor Kazushi Ono commissioned me a new opera, about four years ago, he asked me if I could find a topic that is ‘relevant to us today’. So I researched extensively – I usually read a lot anyway – and I came across A Dream of Armageddon by H.G. Wells, which somehow attracted me from the beginning. It’s timeless, political, but set within a dream. Actually, I haven’t yet met anyone who has read this story. My librettist Harry Ross, with whom I collaborate regularly, is a great fan of Wells but he didn’t know it either. Rather than going for a very famous novel, where people have fixed ideas – well, Solaris was a famous novel but more in a cultish sense – I wanted to choose something by a famous author, but a minor short story where there is scope for us to imagine and adapt.”

“The funny thing is that as students, Harry and I – we studied together at the Trinity College of Music (now Trinity Laban) – wanted to produce an opera that started from a train sequence and we even wrote some proposals! But no one took any notice. At the time though, we never actually figured out what to do after the train scene – but this story does! So it’s the perfect story for us.”

Dai Fujikura © Seiji Okumiya
Dai Fujikura
© Seiji Okumiya

Dai is excited to bring on board the dynamic young American director Lydia Steier, who has received high accolades in Europe. “Lydia and I have known each other for many years through our mutual friend Claire Chase (flute) of the International Contemporary Ensemble, and we’ve always wanted to do something together. Lydia was at college with Claire so she first got to know my music through the group. When I was at Theater Basel for The Gold-Bug in 2018, she was also working there on her production of Stravinsky’s The Rake's Progress and we would meet and chat in the canteen. When I contacted her to ask if she would be interested in directing this opera, she instantly said yes! It will be her first time directing in Japan and I am pleased to bring her to the Tokyo audience.”

Dai is known for delivering the score well ahead of the deadline, so actually A Dream of Armageddon was already completed in late 2018, almost two years before the premiere. No last minute hectic copying out of parts then! During our interview, he leafs through the score with me and explains his compositional ideas.

“So many things surprised me when I was composing this work” he says. “Firstly I’ve never dealt with politics in my music – except for Poison Mushroom which was written for the concert of Musicians Against Nuclear Arms. Usually in my music, I like everything to be quite clean and beautiful, but Harry goes for gritty and rough things – although he is also extremely delicate and sensitive – so his text pushed me to write music that is more chaotic than I usually would have written. The world of this opera is in absolute turmoil. Also, I’ve never written a role of a dictator before! On the other hand, I got to write some really seductive music too. There’s even a futuristic cabaret song in form of a waltz in 3+4 time. I wouldn’t choose to write this sort of music if it’s not opera, but I was happy to know that I could do it!”

Marta Argerich © Adriano Heitman
Marta Argerich
© Adriano Heitman

There has been another big project that has occupied Dai. That is his new piano concerto – his fourth one. It’s written for Martha Argerich and the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra and will be premiered in August 2020. The concerto, which is also already finished, is titled Akiko’s Piano. So who is Akiko, when the work is written for Argerich?

Akiko Kawamoto was born in 1926 in Los Angeles to wealthy Japanese parents. The family had an upright piano made by the Baldwin Piano Company in Cincinnati, which Akiko learnt to play. In 1933 they moved to Hiroshima because the parents wanted her to be educated in Japan. This, however, was to become a one-way trip for Akiko. Before long, the war broke out and on that fateful day of 6th August 1945, 19 year-old Akiko went to work (many students were mobilised to help the war effort). Although she was blown off her feet, she managed to reach home where her parents awaited, but she died the next day of acute radiation sickness. 

However, her piano survived, although it suffered damage and still bears fragments of glass. In recent years, this piano has been lovingly restored by a local piano tuner and it's now known as “Akiko’s Piano”. Many international pianists including Argerich and Peter Serkin have played on it.

“It was originally the idea of my agent in Japan that I should write a piano concerto for Ms. Argerich, incorporating Akiko’s Piano in some way. So I went to rural Hiroshima to research about Akiko and her piano. I stayed three days in the house where this piano is currently kept. I surrounded myself with copies of Akiko’s photos and diary entries and composed the cadenza of the concerto which will be played on Akiko’s actual piano at the premiere.”

“When I played a section of the cadenza to the piano tuner, he told me that I had brought out the characteristics of the piano well, which made me very happy. After that, I returned to London and composed the rest of the concerto which is played on a regular grand piano with orchestra.”

Dai Fujikura © Marion Kalter
Dai Fujikura
© Marion Kalter

The concerto is a commission from the Hiroshima Symphony Orchestra, of which Argerich is Peace and Music Ambassador since 2015. The complete concerto will be performed at the “Music for Peace” concerts on 5 and 6 August 2020, conducted by Music Director Tatsuya Shimono.

However, Dai is keen to stress that “as much as I am delighted to write this concerto for Ms. Argerich, I really wanted to make sure that the work is about Akiko and the life that she would have lived. I needed to stay clear of writing anything bombastic because I didn’t want it to be interpreted as the atomic bomb. Yet I didn’t want to compose a Requiem either. In this concerto, I didn’t want to walk through the story. It’s more abstract – in a way, the opposite of writing an opera. I wanted to focus on what she could have done if she had lived after the bombing. After all she didn’t know she was going to die that day. There’s a lot in her diaries and essays about her future dreams. That is the kind of spirit I wanted in the cadenza as well as the concerto itself.”

Prior to the concerto premiere in August, the cadenza, titled Akiko’s Diary, will be unveiled by Argerich on 13 March at a Hiroshima Symphony’s concert in Tokyo (Sumida Triphony Hall). Has Dai talked to her about the concerto? “I’ve met Ms. Argerich a few times and she is extremely easy to talk to. My pianist friend recorded the cadenza on Akiko’s Piano and we’ve sent her that video. I’ve been told she likes it.”

Meanwhile, Dai’s works are being performed in Europe too. A French language premiere of his children’s opera The Gold-Bug will be given in and around Paris from February to April. In March, Jonathan Nott and Orchestre de la Suisse Romande will perform his Piano Concerto no. 3 “Impulse” in Geneva with Yu Kosuge as soloist. Also his 11th CD album Zawazawa has just been released. He certainly has an exciting year ahead.

Click here to find out more about Dai Fujikura.

This interview was sponsored by KAJIMOTO and New National Theatre Tokyo.