Seattle's Fisher Ensemble puts an otherworldly musical spin on a Noh play in "Kocho."
There’s nothing else in Seattle like the Fisher Ensemble — and there may not be in the whole country, either.
The group produces spare, stylized choral music that blends medieval-sounding antiphonal chant with Asian tunings. Onstage, the music merges with stately dance and pageantry that have a Butoh intensity. The combinations, far from being a mere pastiche of their ancient influences, come off as something both haunting and new.
“Kocho,” their latest production, is an otherworldly trance-inducer. An adaptation of a Noh play by Kanze Kojiro Nobumitsu, it’s literally plum-blossom light in its narrative thread about an “anguished” butterfly, born too late to fly among spring plum blossoms. She encounters a wandering priest who, taking pity on her, allows her to be born sooner — and that’s it for plot.
The magic resides in the score (by Garrett Fisher) and its staging (by his sister Christy Fisher, who dances the role of the butterfly). The first unusual thing you notice is that the priest is “played” by four vocalists and one trombonist, while Kocho, the butterfly, is represented by a vocalist (Danya Clevenger) and a flutist (Esther Sugai), as well as dancer Fisher. You’re not following characters on a stage here. Instead, you’re immersed in music and story elements that permeate the air itself.
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The musicians and singers alike move barefoot all around the hall, delivering a true 3-D experience. In the Chapel Performance Space, the sound is richly resonant and you never know how it’s going to shape itself around you.
Although composer Fisher dubs the piece an “opera,” his classically trained singers employ a sound that’s more ecclesiastical than conventionally operatic. Tones are pure; vibrato is minimal. As the voices float, reverberate, bend and meld, the action likewise surges and flows around you.
The linchpin of the show is Christy Fisher’s dance performance, though she appears only for brief intervals. Dressed in a pale, high-collared gown (by Bo Young Choi) with her hair yanked back in five asymmetrical pigtails, she’s a glaring, quivering presence in the opening sequence. In a later passage behind a scrim, Fisher creates marvelous, monstrous shadow-play with the help of Daniel Story’s lighting and those creepy pigtails. At tale’s end, she has her wings and her wish.
“Kocho” is sung mostly in Japanese, with an English translation provided in the libretto handed out with the program. The five-piece instrumental ensemble, while not required to perform any pyrotechnics, employs a special touch in making Fisher’s score so potently atmospheric. Singers Shawna Avinger, Daniel Brylow, Jeremiah Cawley, Danya Clevenger and Kathea Yarnell are the quintet who make the whole thing soar.
The evening opens with the brief “Piano Raga No. 1,” played by Byron Schenkman. An unnotated improvisation on themes devised by Fisher, it’s pleasant enough — but hints at New Age tendencies that Fisher successfully avoids in the close and twining polyphonies of “Kocho.”
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com