“A Lawn in the Sky” an opera and dissertation


A Japanese depiction of Admiral Perry‘s “Black Ships”

Since last year, my web postings here have slowed down a bit. One reason for this online inactivity is that, although I’ve been receiving many wonderful performances of my music by groups such as the Post-Haste Reed Duo, there’s a limit to how many times I can post a different recording of the same piece on my site before I reach a point of diminishing returns.

My compositional energy, too, has turned from smaller works to focusing on my opera and PhD dissertation, a two-act musical drama, currently under the working title, “A Lawn in the Sky.”

I say “my opera” but I don’t mean to purport sole ownership of the project, since I have a wonderful creative partner and collaborator in poet/librettist Katherine Hollander. We’ve been working together on this project for a couple years now, but, since it became my dissertation, I’m now on a strict, rigorous, and tangible timeline.

The opera focuses of a Japanese “straggler”, a World War II soldier, who, well into the 1970s, still believes that the conflict continues and hides in the jungles of the Philippines, waging guerilla war on the people there.

This phenomenon has been explored before (and perhaps I should put the word “explore” in scare quotes) in TV, films, and video games (including an early episode of Gilligan’s Island, whose depiction of a Japanese Straggler by Vito Scotti is far too offensive to provide a direct link here. Look it up on YouTube if you’re interested, but make sure you’re somewhere private).

My interest in the story of a Japanese straggler, though, comes primarily from my fascination with the effects of Japan’s post-war reconstruction and U.S. occupation.

Japan’s surrender after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki undermined the core values of Japanese society (at least those purported by the government): the assumption of the preeminence of the emperor, and thereby the Japanese people, which led to a kind of Japanese version of Manifest Destiny across continental Asia.


Japanese World War II propaganda decrying European Imperialism in Asia, and justifying Japan’s liberation of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere

After the war, Japan faced a rapid Westernization of social values, and, many analyses claim, a crisis of national identity.

Perhaps, it would be easier to believe the war hadn’t ended…

Propaganda Poster

…and, for the “stragglers”, it didn’t.

In the story of the opera, then, there is an opportunity to examine the interaction of wartime and post-war Japanese thinking. Wartime Japan and postwar Japan can engage each other in dialog (quite literally), and, furthermore, explore their respective relationships with the rest of the world. Beyond these historical ideas, too, our hope is that the opera will speak to universal themes of war, modernity, globalization, and, on an individual level, denial and loyalty.

Now, my task is how to portray this story (and wonderful libretto) musically, with my mixed ensemble of Western, Japanese, and electronic instruments. This is not a trivial task, and a discussion of the issues this raises is perhaps best saved for another time.

(Just a note: I do not mean to slander modern Japan by showing the propaganda materials above, as I’m sure many people in the U.S. are also very ashamed of the posters that we made 70 years ago, like this one here

…Let alone the portrayal in Gilligan’s Island.)

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