BWW Interviews: Marty Regan and Kenny Fries Talk HGO's THE MEMORY STONE
Shortly after many children all over Houston had hunted lawns for eggs and other treats that the mythical Easter Bunny delivered this past Sunday, I had a delightful conversation with composer Marty Regan and librettist Kenny Fries for Houston Grand Opera (HGO)'s 50th World Premiere, THE MEMORY STONE. We discussed the new opera, looking into its creation, meaning, and cultural significance. As we talked about THE MEMORY STONE, it became abundantly clear that this particular opera is most deserving of being HGO's magical 50th World Premiere and that it will be one that audiences should not miss.
Me: How did you get started creating music and writing lyrics or librettos?
Kenny Fries: This is my first libretto for an opera. Basically, I had met Marty (Regan) in Japan in 2002. I was there researching a book, on a grant. So, ten years later, Marty asked if I'd be willing to write a libretto, and I said, "Sure." [Laughs] Previously, I wrote a sequence of poems while I was in Japan that was set for traditional Japanese instruments and voice. So that's the experience I had dealing with music, but I had never written a libretto before.
Marty Regan: I've been composing for about 25 years. I started when I was a teenager, basically with just improvisation and short jazz compositions. I began to write chamber music, orchestral music, and choral music when I was an undergraduate student at Oberlin Conservatory of Music. While I was there, I became interested in Japanese culture. Rather than going to graduate school for music composition, I went to Japan following graduation for three years. Upon my return to the United States, I was actually considering abandoning my dream to become a composer and instead pursuing a graduate degree in Japanese studies. One day I thought, "Why do I have to decide between one or the other? Why can't I do both?" So I put the wheels in motion to become an ethnomusicologist and specialist in working with traditional Japanese instruments.
From 2000 - 2002 I was awarded a scholarship from the Ministry of Culture of Japan, and became unmatriculated graduate student at Tokyo College of Music. I took applied lessons on most of the major Japanese instruments and took lessons with one of Japan's most prominent composers, who has since passed away. His name is Minoru Miki. And since then, I would say that probably 80% of my compsitional output has been for traditional Japanese instruments.
THE MEMORY STONE uses a combination of Western orchestral and traditional Japanese instruments. There's a string quartet as well as the shakuhachi, which is the end blown bamboo flute, and the koto, which is a kind of zither. The koto I use in this work has 21 strings. This is also my first operatic work.
Me: Is this your first time to collaborate with each other?
Kenny Fries: Yes.
Me: You said that you met in Japan, but how did that happen?
Kenny Fries: It happened very briefly at a concert for a mutual friend. There's a singer in Japan named Mika Kimula, and I got to know her. I was working on a song cycle project. I had heard Marty (Regan)'s music at a concert that Mika gave. At another concert, Marty was there and she introduced us.
Marty Regan: Right. I remember meeting Kenny (Fries) ten years ago, and he left a very strong impression on me. When I was hired to do this opera, there was no librettist that came on, and I was given the choice of either writing the libretto myself or finding someone who I could work with. I knew that Kenny has a deep affinity for Japanese culture and literature, so I sought him out, contacted him after a period of ten years, and asked if he would be interested in writing the libretto.
Me: What was your writing process for THE MEMORY STONE like?
Kenny Fries: My task was to write a story that had something to do with the Japanese-American community in Houston, so last May I came down for four days. Matthew Ozawa, the director, was also here. We arranged meetings with people in the Japanese community. Before I came, I knew there was a Japanese garden in Houston. I had written about gardens, and I was very interested in Japanese gardens, so I thought of my idea to set the opera in the Japanese garden in Houston. Also, because of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, had some notion that I'd like to tie it to that in some way. So, just with two ideas, I started talking to people here in Houston, and luckily-almost accidentally-met a Japanese ballet dancer who danced with the Houston Ballet, Nao Kusuzaki. Talking with her, she inspired one of the characters in the opera. I just got other ideas from stories people had told me when I was speaking with them. Then, I had a few months to hand in the first draft, and I did that. I got feedback from both Marty (Regan), Matthew (Ozawa), the director, and the staff at HGO, then revised some, and gave it to Marty to compose the music.
Marty Regan: Well, I mean... [Pauses and Laughs] God, HGO. It's just amazing what they're doing to support new work. And the fact that this work is in the same list of commissions as, for example, John Adams' NIXON IN CHINA, is such an honor. I'm really excited personally because what I do is very specialized. I'm a composer who specializes in traditional Japanese instruments, and, even in my works for Western instruments, I try to imbue them with a distinctly Japanese aesthetic. So, I really think it's just a miracle that this opportunity fell in my lap, and I have the opportunity to share my love and passion for Japanese instruments with the community here in Houston.
Kenny Fries: It's really amazing to be in the lineage with those other operas. 50 is always a magical number, so it's been quite a magical experience for me. I mean, collaborating with Marty (Regan) and Matthew (Ozawa), it's just been wonderful. And the support that HGO gives to the opera is really just fantastic.
Me: You've discussed this a little bit already, but what is THE MEMORY STONE about?
Marty Regan: Well, first of all, a memory stone is a sacred epitaph found in Japan to mark areas where a tsunami has ravaged the countryside and taken lives away. They still exist in Japan to this day. On one of these epitaphs is written, "No matter how many years have passed, do not forget this warning." This is one of the literary motifs that echo throughout the libretto that I adopted as a musical motif. So, that's what the title refers to.
In terms of the synopsis, it's set in the days following the March 2011 earthquake in Japan. A mysterious Japanese woman appears with a memory stone in Houston's Japanese garden. She's not literally carrying the stone. There is a shell that has been designed to represent the memory stone. Her presence cause these two Houstonian Japanese-American women, Rei and Hana, to relive crucial moments from their past, bond over their respective ancestry, and question how they can support those who have been devastated by the earthquake in Japan.
Kenny Fries: Yeah, I was talking with one of the singers last night, and she was talking about how, in her view, the piece is in lot of ways about home. And it's interesting to me because when I first went to Japan in 2002, I knew nothing about Japan. As soon as I got off the plane and started to experience Japan, I felt I had found a home, which was very odd. I mean, I'm a Brooklyn Jewish kid. [Laughs] So, it was a very interesting experience. I still feel that way when I return to Japan; I always feel like I'm going home even though I don't live there anymore. I think the opera has a lot to do with home, and it has to do with how we find ourselves by where we live or don't live, and how outside traumatic events, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and things we have no control over, show us how to get through this thing we call life. So, that's I think embedded in the text. It's interesting watching them put the opera on its feet. I learn more and more about the text I wrote. I see it in so many different ways, through other people's visions of it now. It's really wonderful to see that. It's become even more multi-dimensional than I thought it was at first.
Me: What do you hope that audiences take away from THE MEMORY STONE?
Marty Regan: That's a difficult question. I mean, obviously I don't want to mediate their experience too much. I'm hoping that the opera speaks for itself. But, personally, as the composer of this work, what I was interested in doing-and this is tied to what Kenny [Fries] says, but I think perhaps on an even broader level-what I'm interested in is creating an artistic experience that reminds us how trauma and loss can help us reevaluate our past. And how since these are basic facets of the human condition, we can transcend suffering and find ways to reconnect with what is truly important in our lives, like family, ancestry, loved ones, our community, etc.
And I think, especially-I'm from New York actually-at the time of the World Trade Center bombing I was in Tokyo. So there's this beautiful line in the opera where Rei is singing, "After the flood, I couldn't get through." She's talking about the fact that the phone lines are jammed, so she couldn't contact her family in Tokyo. Well, for me, that line resonated because I was in Tokyo when I saw my city burning to the ground, and I was trying to get in touch with family, and I couldn't. So that resonated with me on multiple levels.
Look over the past decade. There have been many, many horrible events that have just ravaged the earth. There was the 9/11 World Trade Center bombings, there was the subway bombing in Madrid and in London, there was the 1999 tsunami in Southeast Asia, the bombings in Bali and Mumbia, Hurricane Katrina, and then the 2011 tsunami in Japan, I mean, it seems like the last decade has just been peppered with these terrible tragedies, and yet, as a human race, we persevere and transcend. And I believe we make ourselves better because of the experience. So, what I want the audience to be reminded of is that these types of events are unavoidable-it's part of human experience-and it is how we transcend them that is what really is important.
Kenny Fries: Basically it's a short opera. It's a chamber opera. It's one act. And I've been saying to people is that the opera might be 45 minutes, but it's going to feel like a lifetime. And, I mean this in a good way; a lifetime because there's so much richness there. I imagine that for most audience members that go along for the ride, it's going to touch a very deep place, either consciously or unconsciously, in their heart.
I've been thinking about this piece as a cross between Noh theater and (William) Shakespeare's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, oddly. And there is something very timeless about both. It's almost like there's something going on in The Collective Unconscious way in this opera through mostly Marty (Regan)'s music and Matthew (Ozawa)'s staging, which came out of my text, but I think there's this multilevel thing going on where people's emotions will be triggered, emotions that they might not have even known that they had before walking into the theatre and might not even be able to know what that was until long after they see the piece. But there's something that goes on chemically, I think, through the process with this piece.
Marty Regan: One of the reasons I was interested in working with Kenny was because I was hoping he would fill the text with some kind of allusion to traditional Japanese literature, which he did by using this element of Noh. Noh is this theatrical masked form from the 14th century, full of wonderment and mystery, where characters often undergo a transformation. And so there is an element of ambiguity to the text-what is happening and what is changing. I tried to reflect that in the music by this type of fluid musical materials where it allows the drama to seamlessly oscillate between past and present, Houston and Japan, reality and memory, American-Japanese identity, among other types of dualities. So, for those audience members who are familiar with traditional Japanese theatrical genre known as Noh, I think it will resonate quite deeply. I don't think it's necessary to appreciate the opera, but the Japanese influence of this work is echoed on many levels.
Kenny Fries: I've been thinking as we've been having this conversation a lot about the relationship between humans and the natural world, and I think in a lot of ways we might hit people like some sort of natural thing that happened, whether it's a storm or a beautiful sunrise, whatever that may be. I think that it will come to them in a way that's very primal and not through the head. It will probably be through the heart and soul, I would think.
Me: As artists, what inspires you?
Marty Regan: I find that [Pauses] when I travel and I get to experience new places, new smells, new foods, and new people, that inevitably-it's not a direct idea to base my work on the place I'm going to-it stimulates my brain and pushes me out of what's happening every day, inevitably giving me ideas to compose and to express something. Traveling is really, really important to me.
Kenny Fries: Yeah, travel has essential been essential to my life and to my work. It's not a luxury to me; it's almost like blood. It's something that's necessary.
I mean, I think I always write out of a place of love. Love is a thing that has always inspired me. I just finished a book, In the Province of the Gods, about Japan based on my research and the time that I lived in Japan. And it's clear when I finished the book that the book, to me, was a love song for Japan and for the person I now share my life with who I met in Japan. So, that's always there.
What has been very interesting for me is that I was born with a physical disability, and most of my work and what I'm known for is my work around disability, but this piece is the first piece I've written in a very long time that doesn't have, on the surface, disability as its subject. Though, when I look at the themes that are there, the idea of eternal change and things always changing, these are things I have learned from my disability experience, though it is very different from the books I have written on that-my memoir Body, Remember, for instance, and my last book, which was a Darwin related book, The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin's Theory. It seems, on the surface, that there is nothing to do with the things that I have previously written, but there's an aspect of change-the idea of change-that is at the core of this work as well.
Me: What advice do you offer to others that hope to become composers and writers?
Marty Regan: [Laughs] You go first.
Kenny Fries: [Laughs] Marty (Regan)'s giving me that one. [Pauses] To hold on the vision they have for their own work, but to be able to take in the world, and that includes feedback from others to make their work grow. To not get caught in a trap of writing for a specific audience or writing for a wide audience. The most personal thing you can write can be the most universal thing that you write. But it takes a lot. I've seen a lot of people who have written one thing, and then I haven't seen another book from them in a long time. Just to keep going no matter what externals happen.
I mean, this whole project was serendipitous. If I hadn't gone to Japan, if I hadn't met the singer Mika Kimula, if I hadn't heard Marty's music, if I hadn't met Marty, this would have not happened. 12 years ago I would have said, "No, this would never happen." Writing opera is something I always imagined doing, but that it happened was totally a series of events that I totally was not in control of. And here we are in a hotel room talking to you, and the opera will premiere on Tuesday.
Marty Regan: As far as music is concerned, in order for a work to come to life it requires more than a composer's vision. You need to work with performers who are excited to champion your work, and you also have to realize that you're writing for an audience. So, I would suggest for inspiring composers that they recognize the inherently social process of this field. In other words, you can write a good work, but you also have to have social skills to be able to work with performers and to make sure you can cultivate relationships that will make that possible.
The other thing that I think is really important is when you compose a work, knowing that it eventually it will be performed in a concert hall or somewhere and ultimately be judged by all sorts of people, is to remember that you can't judge yourself too harshly the first time around. If you do that, you'll never get something finished. So, what I encourage my students to do, and other people who are interested in composing, is to just realize that the first draft of a work, you're really just writing for yourself. You have to get that critical voice out of your head to work through your raw material. And then after your material is on the page, you can make decisions about what is good, what is bad, what can be thrown away, and what can be used.
Unless you get rid of your ego at that first stage, you'll never be able to get your draft going. And that is very, very hard for many composers, especially these days when we have all sorts of technology to allow us to hear our music instantaneously as we write it. We think that that's going to be the final product, and it's not.
Kenny Fries: And the other thing that came to mind was that I started out as a playwright. My training-my graduate degree-is actually in playwriting. So, I left the stage behind, many years ago and started writing poetry and then fiction. When I walked into the rehearsal room last week, it was over 25 years since I stood in the rehearsal room, dealing with a theatrical work. So, you just never know which genre is going to come your way. I never knew that I would start writing non-fiction either. As a writer, I think it is important to be open to seeing what are the genres that can best tell the stories you want to tell.
This piece would have not happened even as a poem, even though I see a lot of the text delivered on the page as poetry. It took all of the different training that I've had and my experiences to where I could put them together on the stage. If I didn't have that theatrical training early, I probably wouldn't have been able to write the libretto that I wrote. So the things you learn can lead you to places later on that you really don't know where they're going to go.
Houston Grand Opera's World Premiere production of THE MEMORY STONE runs from April 9 to 11, 2013 at Asia Society Texas Center at 1370 Southmore Boulevard, Houston, Texas. Concert excerpts from the opera will also be performed as part of the Japan Festival at Hermann Park on April 13 & 14, 2013. For more information about the opera please visit https://www.houstongrandopera.org/Site/Tickets/calendar/view.aspx?id=4168. All performances are free and open to the public. For tickets to the performances at Asia Society Texas Center, please visit http://asiasociety.org/texas/events/upcoming or call (713) 496 - 9901. For tickets to the performances at the Japan Festival, please visit http://japan-fest.info. For more information about composer Marty Regan, please visit http://www.martyregan.com. For more information about librettist Kenny Fries, please visit http://www.kennyfries.com.All photos courtesy of Houston Grand Opera.
Marty Regan, Composer of THE MEMORY STONE.
Kenny Fries, THE MEMORY STONE's librettist.