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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Harmonia Opera marks milestone

After successful international career, Emiko Iinuma founded company and arts school


Special to The Japan Times

Emiko Iinuma's voice has a distinctive sugared drawl, a sweet residue from her early years as a student at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. It is more than the drawl that attracts — her voice dances, leaps across decades, travels up and down pitch, whispers hardship and rises in forthright determination.

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Emiko Iinuma is pictured with Motoatsu Sakurai, then Japanese consul general in New York, during a reception in 2008 after she received a foreign minister's commendation for her contribution to promoting international cultural exchanges. COURTESY OF EMIKO IINUMA

Iinuma's voice has supported her, fueled her, won her accolades and led to numerous accomplishments. After being beguiled by its varied tones, it is easy to understand why.

The founder of the Harmonia Opera Company, a New York-based Japanese opera, was born as the eldest of seven children of Yoshiro Iinuma, who served in the 1930s as chamberlain to one of the princes in the Yamashina-no-miya, a branch of the Imperial family.

"My father tutored for the Imperial families in haiku, waka and shi,' " Iinuma recalled. Her mother, Kimiko, worked as a housekeeper and chef at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo. After the prince died in 1934, the family moved to Nakano Ward before evacuating to Ibaraki Prefecture during the war, where Iinuma developed her talent as a singer during high school.

The family struggled, however, not only with the hardship of war, but with the untimely death of their mother from cancer at age 44. Speaking of her younger siblings, Iinuma said: "We all helped each other, we all raised each other. I am grateful for all of my family."

Returning to Tokyo after the war, Iinuma was a young woman looking for something to make sense out of chaos, sadness and her father's own illness. "Japan has multiple religions, of course, and I was raised in the Buddhist and Shinto traditions. I heard about a Christian chaplain in Tokyo who was supposed to be very good, so I went to the base chapel with a friend near Marunouchi to hear him out of curiosity."

The chaplain impressed the young Iinuma so much that she returned every Sunday. Iinuma soon joined Bible classes. Eventually, she was baptized, began singing as a soloist in the church choir, and worked as a secretary to the chaplain.

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Emiko Iinuma appears in one of the early productions of Harmonia Opera Company. Below: The North American premiere of the opera "Kurofune" was held in 2006 to celebrate Harmonia Opera's 25th anniversary of its founding. COURTESY OF HARMONIA OPERA COMPANY
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It was Easter Sunday, in the late 1950s, the sunrise service, and Iinuma's voice glided across the pews to start her journey across the seas. A lieutenant in the congregation was so impressed with her abilities that he offered to help her find a place in America to study singing.

"I said, 'That's a Cinderella story, and I would love to, but I don't have any money, and I don't have a way to get there.' " The lieutenant promised to take care of details, and right before that Christmas, he called with news of a presidential scholarship to Baylor University, his own alma mater, to study with renowned Russian conductor Daniel Steinberg.

"The news spread all across the air force bases in Fuchu and Tachikawa (in western Tokyo), and another lieutenant offered to help raise funds," she said. He organized a luncheon for the officers' wives, and they secured the money to cover her expenses. "I promised my family, 'I will work hard to make a success, and later on, I will help you.' "

Iinuma arrived in Texas to study music, finishing her degree in three years by working through the summers. She received another scholarship to pursue graduate studies at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and moved to the West Coast.

Two years into her program, her voice again led to a life-altering decision: "I was always singing in the church. That's how I met people. A minister of music was in the congregation of the Japanese service in L.A., and he invited me to come sing at his church across town, the black congregation. I said yes, and after singing at that service, the minister invited me to his home for Thanksgiving dinner, to meet his daughter."

The minister's daughter was Shirley Verrett-Carter, then studying in New York at Juilliard Music School. She would go on to become an acclaimed mezzo-soprano for the Metropolitan Opera in the 1970s and '80s. "After dinner, Shirley played the piano and I sang for her. She told me I should come to New York to study at her school."

Within a few months the details were arranged, and Iinuma moved to New York to study voice at Juilliard. It had not even been six years since her move from Japan.

While still at Juilliard, Iinuma made her professional debut to rave reviews. Her singing career spanned two decades, and included memorable performances at Radio City Music Hall and the Lincoln Center, and recitals at Schubert Hall and Brahms Hall in Vienna. For several years, Iinuma commuted between Vienna and New York for her career.

"There's an old saying," Iinuma said, "that it takes 10 years of studying voice after you become professional to truly become an opera singer, training your vocal chords by singing with small companies, learning the roles, expanding your repertoire."

Iinuma was grateful for the many opportunities she was given to perform as a young professional, including support from Beate Gordon, then director for performing arts at the Japan Society and who is known for her role in drafting part of Japan's Constitution as a researcher in the Allied Occupation.

After nearly 20 years as a professional opera singer, Iinuma decided to start her own company, and in 1981 she established Harmonia Opera.

"I just realized it was time to form my own company, to train young people and give them a chance to perform. I had been blessed with so many people helping to advance my career, and I wanted to do the same thing for young people, struggling to make it."

Iinuma continued: "I also wanted to introduce Japanese culture to America through authentic Japanese opera in the original language. Look at all the Italian, French, German opera that prevail in the United States, but never Japanese. I decided to change that. I'd spent 20 years as a performer, I'd sung everything, in every language. Of course, I admire Western culture, but why not Japanese culture?"

Although the small company met with early success on the stage, garnering solid reviews from The New York Times and other major publications, financially it was a struggle, with only three sponsors — The Bank of Tokyo, Canon Inc. and Japan Airlines Corp.

This time, it was family and friends, not merely her voice, that helped Iinuma to persevere. Iinuma had helped support her younger sisters, Sumiko and Setsuko, to come to America, and now they both supported the fledgling company, Sumiko working two jobs and living with Iinuma, while Setsuko helped out at the box office and with fundraising to secure sponsors.

Assistance also came from the Japanese business sector in New York, where Iinuma worked part-time as a bilingual secretary to fund her performances with Harmonia.

Iinuma also credits James Demster, conductor and musical director for Harmonia, for his dedication and understanding of Japanese opera since the early days of the company.

Harmonia's breakthrough came on its 10th anniversary, when the company staged a benefit concert for The Hale House Center, a nationally recognized nonprofit organization dedicated to helping children and families in Harlem. "It was a huge success," Iinuma said. "We raised over $20,000 for Mother Hale, and all the major television networks in America covered the concert."

With their success, Harmonia gained more sponsorship and at one point had up to 60 corporate sponsors, allowing Iinuma to realize another dream 15 years ago — the start of her own performing arts school within the company.

Although Iinuma faced further financial struggles after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the more recent Wall Street scandals that cut the number of sponsors and support, she has built a small but stable company and school. To celebrate its 30th anniversary this September she plans a special production of the Japanese opera "Yuzuru," and one of the rising young soloists in her company will perform in the lead role of Tsu.

Harmonia has premiered over 35 Japanese works in the U.S. and other countries, with a recent success at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., where the company received a Gold Star Award for Live Broadcast Performance. Iinuma herself was honored in 2008 with the Foreign Minister's Award for Promotion of International Cultural Exchange Through Music, and further honors from the U.S. government and the New Jersey state legislature.

Iinuma now focuses on her students, and speaks enthusiastically of their hard work and her hopes for their futures. Four former students now work full time for Gekidan Shiki, one of Japan's best-known and largest theater companies, in Tokyo.

Although Iinuma realizes her voice opened the door, she believes more in her tenacity: "There is so much talent attracted to New York, with a couple of hundred small opera companies in the area. Only those who are determined, strong with willpower, only those are the ones who survive. I am one of them. I believe in what I am doing. I always believe I will achieve my goals."

Come September, another one will surely come true.

For more information about Harmonia Opera Company, visit www.harmoniaopera.com.


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