NEW YORK — “People who kill themselves don’t usually tell you what they think about killing themselves.”
That line, intoned by a lone voice with unexpected frankness, opens note to a friend, an hour-long chamber opera by David Lang that received its world premiere in mid-January at the Japan Society as part of the Prototype Festival. Based on select writings of the celebrated Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Lang’s music and libretto, along with direction by Yoshi Oida, remain true to Akutagawa’s final sentiment on being “duty bound to be honest” about the decision to take his own life.
Drawing from three Akutagawa texts — his suicide note “A Note to a Certain Old Friend,” autobiographical sketch “Death Register,” and short story “In a Bamboo Grove” (also a source for Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon) — and weaving in original material, Lang fashions a story from his own perspective. Conceptions of death and suicide in Shintoistic Japan differ vastly from those in the United States, and Lang has been resolute in not speaking from any cultural perspective outside his own. His “dead man” — the fully developed character that springs from the composite texts — shares many biographical details with Akutagawa but ultimately represents Lang’s thoughts alone.
That is, until it’s in the hands of tenor Theo Bleckmann. Immediately disarming, Bleckmann’s warmth, candor, and endless spools of legato guided and regaled listeners on his inner journey, with a narrative generosity indicative of his cabaret experience. He was joined by the titular “friend,” a silent role played with sincerity by actor Cyrus Moshrefi, whose reactions created an effective canvas onto which the audience could project their own. Their “conversation,” conducted at a kitchen table as if over a late-night glass of whiskey, throbbed with the intimacy and joy of deep friendship. Bleckmann’s dead man was so magnetic and accommodating as to inspire hope that he might remain among the living, but he maintained an otherworldly distance, reaffirming where he now belonged.
Lang’s score, for string quartet and vibrantly brought to life by young players from the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, bolstered the libretto with a sensitivity characteristic of his text settings. Violin voices opened the prelude with a question; as the friend read the suicide note for the first time, the strings unfolded immediately into a rich tension before melting into a solitary, hymnlike reflection.
Rhythmic motifs, peppered with stuttering gestures common to Lang’s arias, drove the story forward. His vocal lines often sounded like sentences without punctuation (something mirrored in his lowercase titles), and this openness befitted note to a friend. The opera’s first moment featuring instruments without a vocal line arose poignantly after the dead man spoke of “the place I am now,” the strings swelling to support his slow, swimming gestures as if in an underwater world, recalling Orpheus’ journey in Jean Cocteau’s eponymous 1950 film.
Throughout note to a friend, Lang’s libretto continued to foster immediacy; his alterations favored adjusting source material for more directness. Akutagawa’s elegantly written suicide note implies his vanities, and he touches delicately on “aesthetic” reasons for choosing drugs over more violent methods. Lang calls it straight out. “You know I care about the way I look. You know I care about these things,” the dead man sings. “I once ended a relationship because of my lover’s handwriting.”
As director Oida wrote in a program note, the one free decision we humans get to make is the choice to end our life. note to a friend acknowledged the book-ending decision to create life, with a meaningful focus on the dead man’s parents. Bleckmann lavished each recurrence — ”my mother,” “my father,” as well as “my sister” — with long descending syllables married perfectly to the text. Meanwhile, a string of pearls and gold watch with chain, respectively representing his mother and father, provided a symbolic visual anchor. The dead man handled these relics with a care that conjured his childlike attachment to flawed but nevertheless influential parents. Equally touching was the tender movement of his hands around a single candle, which later would represent his own fragile life.
With this symbolism so well established, a sudden video sequence disrupted with a jolting metaphor. A young girl’s face came into focus, squinting either at sunlight or in consternation, as the dead man sang about his deceased, “round-cheeked” sister. As he described cutting her vibrant dresses into doll clothes, the screen became a distracting, jarringly contemporary tableau of dayglow flowers at total odds with the natural tones of the set. At the line “like being watched,” a giant eye stole attention from the music, destroying Bleckmann’s ethereal trance; one might argue the images offered a window into the character’s (and Akutagawa’s) madness. The video never returned in the same way.
In contrast to Western characterizations of death as an absolute finality, note from a friend evokes a world in which the border between us and the dead is more porous — one in which they walk around and console and guide and chide us. The opera brought to mind an interview in which the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, describing the surreal elements of his fiction, says that “in Japan, I think that other world is very close to our real life, and if we decide to go to the other side it’s not so difficult.”
With last words of comfort (“it could have been a natural death”), the inevitable moment of the dead man’s departure arrived. Accompanied by the crunchiest dissonances of the piece, his friend snuffed out the four candles, one each for man, mother, father, and sister. In a final coda, the text drew beautifully from the last section of Akutagawa’s story “In a Grove,” in which another dying man watches the sun — and his life — ebb away through the branches of a bamboo forest at dusk. Standing as first encountered behind a translucent shroud, Bleckmann appeared encased in death, before the opera’s starkest lighting contrast yet made of him a dark, featureless silhouette against brightest day.
The dead man lingered as long as he could on the last syllable (“gone”) and then left for the peace for which he so longed. The strings rushed to meet us in the emotional mess of the aftermath — that place where direct contact with the end of life reaffirms its fullness. Following its New York run, this production of note to a friend goes on to Tokyo and then Taiwan. It would be interesting to know what other worlds the piece might evoke there and beyond.