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Multilingual baritone Luka Kawabata ventures on journey of identity in The Hafu Project ハーフ

Luka Kawabata
Luka Kawabata offers insights into kintsugi ("golden joinery") in The Hafu Project ハーフ.

Last summer, Nikkei Canadian baritone Luka Kawabata thought he was done with a trilogy of digital works called The Hafu Project ハーフ. The Vancouver opera singer and producer had just completed the most recent chapter, 希望 Hope, through a residency with Pacific Opera Victoria. But then, he was approached by City Opera Vancouver, which wanted to adapt his film series into a live presentation.

Kawabata was on vacation at the time. However, he was so thrilled to receive the message that he couldn’t wait to begin.

“I went ‘Okay, let’s set up a meeting immediately! Glad that I took my laptop with me,’” Kawabata tells Pancouver with a laugh.

This weekend (May 26 and 27), City Opera Vancouver will present The Hafu Project ハーフ at the Russian Hall (600 Campbell Avenue). Kawabata says that with this production, he wanted to weave his individual experiences into classical music.

He found a way to do this with the help of French composer Gabriel Fauré’s 1921 song cycle, L’horizon chimerique. It includes four songs about ship travel—touching upon the period before boarding, embarking on the vessel, riding the sea, and disembarking.

“I adapted that to talking about the history of Japanese immigration,” Kawabata reveals.

He felt driven to create this piece to show that community is not simply a set of boundaries.

“All of us have individuality in our identity, as well as our experience,” Kawabata says. “So, you can be part of multiple communities as well as celebrate your individuality as a person.”

Kawabata explores the past

The Japanese term Hafu refers to someone who is half-Japanese. Moreover, Kawabata is acutely aware of his multiplicity of identities, thanks to his mixed Swedish and Japanese ancestry. His mom is from northern B.C. and his dad is from Tokyo.

“They met in Japan and had my oldest sister and I there, but we moved to Canada when I was six months old,” Kawabata says. “So, I grew up really knowing about my direct connection to Japan.”

The Hafu Project ハーフ began in 2020 with Chapter 1: Paueru-Gai パウエル街, which Kawabata developed with help from Manitoba Opera’s Digital Emerging Artist Program.

Paueru-Gai is the Japanese name of the Powell Street neighbourhood where so many Japanese Canadians lived before being incarcerated in camps during the Second World War. It’s seen by some as the ancestral home of Japanese Canadians.

One of his mentors advised him to put more of himself into the project. That enabled Kawabata to come at it as person on a journey to learn about the history of Japanese Canadians rather than presenting himself as an expert on the topic.

Kawabata then produced his second chapter, 幼年 Childhood, through the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. The third chapter 希望 Hope, derives its title from a Nova Scotia boy folding 2,000 paper cranes to raise funds to help Japanese victims of a 2011 tsunami.

On all three chapters, Kawabata collaborated with pianist and vocal coach Perri Lo. They are both alumni of the Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program, which mentors and trains rising opera performers.

“She has become my main co-collaborator in all of my artistic ventures,” Kawabata says. “At this point now, I feel we understand each other and understand the vision—and really trust each other in giving each other feedback.”

Kawabata
Luka Kawabata has collaborated with pianist and vocal coach Perri Lo (above) on several projects.

The Hafu Project ハーフ tells a story

At the Russian Hall, The Hafu Project ハーフ will feature Kawabata’s singing along with Lo’s piano performance. In addition, Kawabata says that there will be dialogue in English, some audience interaction, family videos, and other multimedia elements.

“It’s all in serving the fact that we’re telling a story,” Kawabata says. “And with the exception of opera that’s written as a story, I don’t think that classical music is often approached in this way.”

The Hafu Project ハーフ also includes songs in Japanese and Swedish, reflecting Kawabata’s love of languages. In school, he was enrolled in French immersion. And as an opera singer with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in music from UBC, he has had to sing in other languages.

Nowadays, he can speak conversational German and his Italian has benefited from his knowledge of French. Moreover, he’s become quite adept in Spanish as a result of his travels. But that’s not the end of it—not even close.

Over the past six months, Kawabata decided to try learning 20 languages concurrently.

“I’m a bit further advanced with Swedish than I am with Danish and Norwegian,” he says.

Luka Kawabata
Luka Kawabata delves into the history of Japanese Canadians in The Hafu Project ハーフ.

Embracing Asian languages

Kawabata discloses that for a long time, he was reluctant to try to speak Mandarin. But much to his delight, he’s found that it’s easier than others because the grammar is not too complex. And from his history of reading Japanese, he’s able to read Chinese.

“It’s just learning the different pronunciations,” he says.

Kawabata has also tried learning Korean. According to him, the syntax is very similar to Japanese.

“Then, I started learning Hindi [and] Arabic as well.”

In the interview, he shares a story about how people have approached him in the past and started speaking to him in Kazakh. It’s a Turkic language common in Central Asia. With his mixed Swedish and Japanese heritage, they thought that Kawabata was Kazakh.

In The Hafu Project ハーフ, Kawabata acknowledges that he’s dipping his toe into translating songs into multiple languages. He plans on singing pieces by German composers Ludwig van Beethoven and Robert Schumann in English, Japanese, and Swedish.

“That has been a very interesting and ‘permitting’ experience for me to try doing some translation because often, people are, like, ‘The text is the text. You cannot touch it,’ ” Kawabata says. “A big reason I wanted to translate things into English [was] for accessibility for a local audience.”

City Opera Vancouver presents The Hafu Project ハーフ on Saturday and Sunday (May 25 and 26) at the Russian Hall (600 Campbell Avenue). Tickets cost $40 and are available at cityoperavancouver.com.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.