Colin Hodgetts

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The She-Fox of Shinoda


I formed Hartland Chamber Opera to present my puppet opera, The She-Fox of Shinoda, a joint venture with Saruhachi-za, a bunya puppet troupe from Sado Island, Japan. The opera was presented in eight venues in the South West in November 2000: Hartland, Gloucester, Bristol, Bath, Bridgewater, Exeter, Falmouth.

In October 2001 the production went to Japan. The tour began on the island of Sado. We stayed, rehearsed and gave the first performance at Saruhachi-za's centre in a small mountain hamlet. This is a converted school, constructed of wood and set among fir trees with views of the plains and the peaks. Both the dress rehearsal and first performance were filmed by a national TV company.

The second, overcrowded, performance was in the magical setting of the Buddhist Taikeiji Temple, Kanai, Sado. Then to the mainland and the least satisfactory performance of the tour at the Mirage Hall, Uozu, Toyama. This was followed by probably our best performance - I say probably because some participants have other favourites - at Harmony Hall, Matsumoto. The performance was recorded and a limited number of 2-CD sets are available (£10).

The town of Iida hosts an annual puppet festival, and the audience included a number of puppeteers, a bit nerve-wracking for Ken. The next stop was Nagoya, followed by two performances at the Varsity Hall, Koenji, Tokyo. These, like all the others, were well-supported. Responses, too, were very positive. Here are two:

I thought it worked quite wonderfully. I was immeasurably moved at the end, not by the story, but by the respect shown between puppets and puppeteers, singers and musicians. I had tears in my eyes and that doesn't happen very often. Thank you!
(Angela Jeffs, author and columnist for the Japan Times.)

It was a marvellous performance which both stirred my imagination and moved my heart. A truly happy encounter.
(Aiko Chikaba, a director with NHK television.)

Saruhachi-za had come to the UK in 1998 with the Kodo drummers and performed on the South Bank and at the Edinburgh Festival. Takeshi Nishihashi, the troupe's director felt that they had not communicated with a Western audience as well as they might, and so the idea of a puppet opera, with words in English and Western music, was hatched. So far as we can ascertain, no opera for puppets has been composed since Haydn wrote five for the marionette theatre at Esterhazy, none of which is extant.

The text for the play Shinoda-zuma (The She-Fox of Shinoda) belongs to the genre of sekkyo-bushi (lit. ‘sermon-ballad’) a very old form originating in the 9th or 10th centuries and first used with puppets in the 17th century. Historically, this makes it older than joruri ballads, on which bunraku puppets are based. Shinoda-zuma is one of the ‘famous five’ stories of this genre. Another is Sansho-dayu, made into a wonderful film by the director Kenji Mizoguchi.

The story concerns a nobleman, Yasuna, who, having killed the man who murdered his father, is living in exile in Shinoda forest. He has saved a vixen and she, out of gratitude, has become a beautiful woman, Kuzu-no-ha.

They marry and now have a five-year-old son, Doji. One day Kuzu-no-ha is working at her loom when, reminded of her former life by the sight of wild chrysanthemums, she reverts to her fox form. The boy wakes, sees her, and is terrified.

Now that her true nature has been revealed she can no longer remain with her family but must return to the wild. She writes an explanatory farewell letter to her husband and attaches it to Doji’s sash. Then she writes a poem on the paper wall and, her son being asleep, disappears. Yasuna returns to find Doji in a state. Reading the poem and the letter he determines to get his wife back. Doji insists on going with him.

Meanwhile Kuzu-no-ha has returned to  the  forest as a vixen and, in a humorous interlude, outwits a hunter who is caught in his own trap.

Yasuna and Doji search the wood for Kuzu-no-ha but cannot find her. Yasuna decides to kill the child and himself. As he draws his sword the fox appears, weeping. She cannot return to her former life. She prophesies that Doji will become a great soul - the adult Doji is, in fact, an actual historical figure - and urges Yasuna to bring him up well.  What happens next you will have to see the opera to discover.

Takeshi Nishihashi, the puppeteer, was born in 1948. He undertook Theatre Studies at Waseda University. In 1970 he became a bunraku puppeteer under Minosuke Yoshida, taking the stage name Minoshi Yoshida. He appeared regularly at Tokyo’s National Theatre and Osaka’s Asahi-za, as well as in regional cities all over Japan. He made two trips to Europe, touring from Sweden to Italy and appearing at the Edinburgh Festival.

In 1979 he moved to Sado Island where he became a member of the bunya puppet troupe Osaki-za. In 1995 he set up his own troupe, Saruhachi-za. Its aims are to transmit the bunya tradition, revive old works, and explore ways of widening the tradition in collaboration with storytellers, musicians, and artists of other genres.

In 1998 they were invited by the Kodo Cultural Foundation to accompany the Kodo drummers on a UK tour, performing on the South Bank and at the Edinburgh Festival.  

Simon Piggott, who has translated the text, was born 1950. He holds degrees in history and Japanese from London University. Since 1978 he has lived in Japan, working as a freelance commercial translator. His present home is in Oshika, a remote mountain village in Nagano Prefecture.

The Artistic Challenge for me, the composer, was to create a Japanese 'feel' whilst avoiding pastiche. I listened to traditional music but without analysis and with no thought of replication. Is it possible to absorb these influences in the way that composers such as Takemitsu, Noda, Hirota and Satoh absorbed Western music? Or should they themselves - a half-way house - be my reference point?

There are few precedents for this opera. The obvious one is Benjamin Britten's Curlew River. But though his instrumentation reflects Japanese usage there is, as he wrote, 'nothing specifically Japanese left in the Parable...that I have written.' He converted the Noh ritual of the original play into that of medieval liturgical drama, which allowed him to take his musical inspiration from plainsong. In our opera the story retained its Japanese setting and characters and was performed by the puppets in traditional style. Yeats believed that the Noh technique, in which dramatic and narrative presentation are fused, appeals strongly to the modern mind. I hope we achieved a similar fusion.

As with film, I had to write music to fit a pre-existing action, and I had a video of a performance to check against. But sometimes it takes longer to express in music what can be said in a few words. The puppeteers generously accepted that in places they had to modify the action to fit the music.

Simon Piggott summarised the challenge in an  email to me, 'I don't think the play will be a success with Western audiences simply as a rendering of Japanese deep feelings. A personal interpretation is called for. At the same time we must beware of creating a gap between our interpretation and the puppets. I think we are lucky to be working with someone like Ken (Takeshi) with his openness to Western culture and keenness to experiment.'

This project was in part funded by South West Arts (Year of the Artist) The Dartington Hall Trust and the Elmgrant Trust. Saruhachi-za was sponsored by The Japan Foundation.