Warning: This post contains references to suicide that may be disturbing. If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 and please talk to someone today.
In the top drawer of my desk at work I keep two things. Notes of thanks from students, and the other (which breaks my heart) funeral cards in remembrance of former students who have committed suicide.
Note to a friend is an opera based on the suicide of Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa and I was unprepared for the “triggering” power of this performance, and how much it made me think of those students I knew so briefly.
I can’t help but think of them when Theo Bleckmann sings “People who kill themselves.” It made me very uncomfortable sitting there and I wanted to push the thoughts away. He continued to repeat the line. Again and again with each repetition I saw their faces (including the varied ways I know they took their lives). I was overcome in a loop of thoughts I could not control or stop.
I was bringing a lot into this performance. It took me a little self-talk and then a few minutes to settle down and regain perspective before I could hear the performance on its own terms. This is not a role someone could just go thru the motions with – It is laden. He brought a gravita and tenor of voice that really got inside me. I give Mr. Bleckmann a lot of credit for his full committment.
The opera begins with a silent man finding a letter from his friend. Soon after the singer Mr. Bleckmann emerges as a proxy for the author Ryunosuke Akutagawa who will give voice to the letter he wrote when still alive explaining his decision to commit suicide.
The opera is a unique duet where the friend is ever present and attentive, but mute as he hears the explanation, and worse impotent to prevent what has already taken place.
The orchestra sits behind a curtain just beyond the stage. All strings it builds a crooked scaffolding of discordant sound to expresses the existential torment taking place on stage. Inside this sound space are short plucks of pizzicato and staccato. They sway and swell into stronger melody as the narrative gives way to a calm acceptance of what’s to come.
Acceptance? I rail against this idea that it is okay, it’s not. That it is his decision, it’s a waste. I lean my shoulder into judging “the deadman,” for his choice. This is the point of the opera however; to call out the judgement and the dismissive platitudes that surround suicide. To make it a conversation that respects another humans agency over their own death. I can’t accept it, I want to see him smile again, to taste something delicious, to find worthwhile moments. To persist and exist.
This deeply effecting opera is about existential suffering and by extension the ethical and legal conversations that surround assisted suicide. Youth suicide (which I brought into it) is a very different conversation with many caring people working toward intervention strategies to help guide young people through their developing years. Youth suicide is a heartbreaking crisis and the second highest cause of death ages 15-24, but also not what this opera is about, yet a part of the evenings experience I didn’t want to ignore either.
There is a poignant observation from the philosopher Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus” in which he declares, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living….
The director Yoshi Oidas, who received a reverent applause from the audience echoed Camus in his own artist statement saying: “No human has the chance to ask to be born-one’s birth is the decision of one’s parent(s). As soon as we are born, we are forced to live a life far from freedom, bound by the customs of society, law, religion, politics and other rules of life. As long as we live in this world, we are restrained, as though we are locked up in a prison. However, there is only one thing humans can act on in total freedom-that is to take one’s own life.”
There was a nice after-party gathering after the show and it was nice to see and hear from the creators.
Yoko Shioya warmed the room by opening with a charming sense of humor, then joined the applause of the room to welcome the string players from Japan.
The hero of the evening, David Lang, uncorked a bottle of dom perignon he had been saving and in anticipation folks hushed, stepped backward even, everyone was in heightened anticipation, and then in a grand gesture Mr. Lang pulled the cork.
What follows is no pop, but tacit silence. Every person laughs.
So What is note to a friend All About? It is about the suicide of the Japanese writer
Notes on the Production:
The dead man…………………….. Theo Bleckmann
The friend………………………….. Cyrus Moshrefi
Violin I……………………………….. Kyoto Ogawa
Violin II……………………………… Tomotaka Seki
Viola…………………………………. Ayala Tahara
Cello………………………………….. Ayana Kamimura
Japanese Society, NYC