From tragedies of 9/11 to 3/11: Japanese Operatic Star Sings Volumes of Songs for Hope for Japan
By: Dr Judy Kuriansky
“Charity is a chance to help each other,” explains Japanese operatic superstar Tomoko Shibata, reflecting about her recent charity concert fundraiser for the tsunami and earthquake survivors.
“It’s about being strong yourself to give your heart and energy for good things. That’s what I want to do in these concerts and in my life.”
So far, Shibata has produced three concerts for charity for survivors of the disaster in Japan. The personal rewards are great. But, she admits, producing and founding a charity concert has its challenges, not the least of which is engaging musical artists to play for free. Yet Shibata is undeterred, as she is convinced of her colleagues’ good will, and also sees their donating their time as a learning experience.
“Offering people $50 to perform is not as important as teaching the value of volunteering,” the noted soprano says. She certainly knows, as she has had considerable compensation in high profile roles, but is perfectly comfortable giving her time and talent to worthy causes.
“Time and energy is nothing you can buy with money,” she says.
Shibata has proven her commitment to volunteering her own time and effort to the Japanese earthquake recovery effort in a series of three concerts, called Songs for Hope, which she has co-produced to support survivors (www.tomokoshibata.com).
“I want to use music to fight against threatening experiences,” she says.
Shibata’s commitment comes from personal experience, starting in New York on the fateful day of 9/11 in 2001. Living in trendy downtown Soho at the time, she was walking down Chambers Street to get the subway to Lincoln Center for an opera audition when she saw the second hijacked plane crashing into tower two. Down in the subway, pandemonium erupted, with a mob of people crushing to get out from underground, even trampling an elderly lady. Once outside, seeing signs urging people to volunteer, she went to nearby St. Vincent’s hospital where she offered people comfort by holding their hand as they waited on long lines for the emergency room.
“I was scared,” she said.
Ensuing days were a blur of dust, no water, sleeplessness, and fear of being alone. Driven to help, she made rice balls in her apartment and brought it to masses of people assembled at St. Paul’s Chapel – the elegant old building on lower Broadway, part of the Parish Trinity Church, a traditional community center of reconciliation and pilgrimage, where 9/11 recovery workers received round-the-clock care. She also hugged firefighters and sang to them in whispers.
On the fifth day after 9/11, she accompanied a friend who was afraid to go back to her apartment alone in Battery Park, which is very near the Ground Zero site. Opening the front door, they were faced with the gruesome sight of an airplane seat obviously from one of the ill-fated airplanes that had crashed into the World Trade Center, now in the middle of her living room, having catapulted from the plane through her window. The body of a deceased passenger was still belted in the seat.
“That was very traumatic, “she says. “I am still haunted by that vision.”
“It was all very painful, but I tried to keep my emotions inside,” she continues. “I also tried to understand what it meant. But there was no answer. I prayed for the victim’s families.”
Two months later, Shibata flew to Seattle to sing in the American premier of famed Japanese composer Shigeaki Saegusa’s Requiem, substituting for an opera singer who was afraid to fly. Shibata boarded the plane bravely, taking a chance.
“I had to sing, “she said. “It is my way of healing.”
Once back in Japan, those painful memories of 9/11 in New York were triggered when the tsunami/ earthquake happened in her own country on 3/11 in 2011.
“I wanted music to help open the hearts of the people in the earthquake area,” says Shibata. “That gave me the idea to produce the first “Songs for Hope” concert as a way for me to use what I know – music – to help both countries heal.”
“Songs for Hope Volume 1” was performed with ten volunteer musicians in her music salon, “Jiyugaoka-Operaza,” in Meguro-ku, Tokyo on May 22, two months after the tragic tsunami-earthquake in Japan. Shortly after, Shibata visited the Sendai earthquake area, and met friends and a young girl, who would inspire a later “Songs for Hope” concert.
Wanting to connect the two tragedies 3/11 with 9/11 with hope, Shibata came back to the U.S.A., and performed “Songs for Hope Volume 2” in New York City on September 9th.. Held in the elegant Kosciuszko Foundation mansion, the performance was dedicated to remembering 3/11 in Japan and 9/11 in New York, significantly before the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Towers. Her selections included songs form many cultures, consistent with Shibata’s desire to bring all cultures together, and her passion for finding songs in all countries where she travels widely. It seemed appropriate given that the victims of 9/11 were of so many different backgrounds. Her selections ranged from Mozart to a Chilean song, America’s George Gershwin from the opera “Porgy and Bess,” one of her favorites, John Lennon’s “Imagine” and a Finnish Love Song with Japanese lyrics she wrote.
“It’s a hobby of mine to travel and find great music,” she explained.
Two days later, she performed on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 at the Japanese Floating Lantern ceremony, an annual interfaith concert and memorial held at Pier 40 on the Hudson River. Organized by Buddhist priest T.K. Nakagaki, ministers from various faiths made dedications, and musicians of various backgrounds performed, including Shibata singing an original anthem called “Towers of Light” (www.towersoflightsong.com) co-written by this author and internationally acclaimed composer and pianist Russell Daisey. The song honors the victims and the heroes of that and other tragedies worldwide, offering hope and light for the survivors.
“Performing at 9/11 in New York was a powerful connection for me for the two countries suffering from disasters, and contributing my love for both peoples,” says Shibata.
Fueled in her desire to honor the 9/11 and 3/11 tragedies, about two weeks later Shibata was back in Japan and produced and performed “Songs for Hope Volume 3” on September 29. The concert was held in the elegant classical music performance space in Tokyo, Hakuju Hall.
“As a musician, I can put meaningful messages into the music I sing, to offer this to people as philanthropy. It is my way of giving. We all have ways to give.” Shibata
Committed to sharing the talents of other musicians in her charity concerts, each “Songs for Hope” concert includes other musicians. Volume 3 showcased four well-known Japanese musicians, including cellist and Columbia recording artist Nobuo Furukawa, and six talented young performers, including a duet by a mandolin and a mandola player. Assisting in the production, and also performing, was the gifted young harpist, Ailing Sai.
Shibata’s production of “Songs for Hope Volume 3” follows a metaphoric movement from before to after the tragedies in New York and Japan, with an accompanying video montage of images projected on a large screen onstage. In the prologue, a young boy sang the popular 1806 English nursery rhyme, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” to symbolize innocence and light. As images evolved to show devastation from 9/11 and 3/11, a pianist played a somber composition.
Moving the message and the music to the theme of hope, Shibata recited a poem by Mattie J.T. Stepanek, the young boy who died from a rare form of muscular dystrophy. His “Heartsongs” series of poems -- New York Times Bestseller and featured on TV shows like Oprah and Good Morning America-- became an inspiration theme that no matter how difficult life is, with hope there is light. For similar inspiration, eleven-year old Rihoko Kikuchi, a survivor of the Japanese 3/11 tragedy, recited a poem she wrote as a re-interpretation of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” – a school children’s assignment -- that gained notoriety after 3/11 as a sign of survival. When the tsunami hit, Rihoko and her classmates were evacuated to the roof of her school, where they witnessed the destruction. Her mother, unharmed, was at a shopping mall at the time, and her father was working two hours away. Their house was destroyed and a neighbor died. It took her parents a day to find their daughter.
Continuing the theme of hope and invoking the association between 9/11 in New York and 3/11 in Japan, Shibata reprised the “Towers of Light” song, accompanied by Daisey, who had traveled to Tokyo to perform with her and harpist Ms. Sai. The author of this article (Dr.Judy), co-lyricist of the anthem who had also traveled to Japan came onstage to give a message bridging Japan and New York with light and hope. I had a special connection to 9/11 in that I had provided psychological support to survivors at Ground Zero and the Family Assistance Center in New York as well as many other worldwide disasters, and I also have a special connection to Japan, having spent many years traveling back and forth to Japan, hosting my radio show, lecturing in Aoyama Gakuin University, writing books and doing TV shows for NHK.
A fan of American music, Shibata sang “The Rose” in Japanese, a pop song made famous by Bette Midler. In her poetic style, Shibata describes the meaning as “to give heart and have courage even when your heart is breaking…as time goes by, seeds blossom into love... although my heart weeps.”
“It all means I want to help people,” she summarizes.
In keeping with Shibata’s diverse musical style, the second half of the concert again mixed performances of classical music of Bach and Puccini’s Tosca, with songs of other styles and cultures, and of course, Shibata’s favorite Beatles tune, John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
“I want Japanese people to think of peace, and doing for other people, like the song is about,” she said.
The concert closed with all the performers singing “Over the Rainbow,” the classic Academy-award ballad written for the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” that became Judy Garland’s signature song, as a final message of dreaming for hope.
Producing these concerts has given Shibata a deep understanding of some psychological principles that, as a psychologist, I appreciate. One lesson is about the unselfishness of giving, as Shibata reflects on the New York firefighters on 9/11 that she watched heroically rushing into the tragedy, to help.
“It makes me cry,” she says.
Another lesson is about the interaction between giving and receiving.
“People have to be given a chance not only to give, but also to receive,” she says. “We have to know how to do both.”
Yet another lesson is about fears people have in giving.
“People are afraid to lose something if they give,”she says. “Instead, they have to realize that they actually grow in their own wealth, even spiritually, by doing so.”
Responding to natural disasters by giving through her art is part of a journey of personal growth for Shibata, who reads many books to learn about the meaning of life. Her favorite author is Hermann Hesse. “Existentialism makes me think about the meaning of life,” she says. “I wonder why some talented people do not have money, or are not recognized and well-respected.”
She also likes an NHK television show about a Harvard University course about positive psychology where the professor concludes that “There is no one answer” to what life is about.
These lessons help her make sense of her own experiences. “I always felt independent and different,” she says.
Born in Tokyo in 1959, she had recurring dreams as a child, which she now thinks of as a sixth sense, but which were criticized, and led to her feeling misunderstood. Sibling rivalry was also troubling to understand. A pianist from age 4 until age 13, playing tennis and volleyball unfortunately damaged her fingers, forcing her switch to focus on her voice. At 23 years old, driven by an urge to express herself, she moved to New York, where an uncle was living in the “hip” village section of Manhattan, to make it as a singer songwriter. Working hard, she played piano in a bar for three consecutive shifts to earn money, and then became a back-up singer for Pink Lady, a Japanese female pop duo.
A classical operatic singer, starring in Rigoletto and The Magical Flute, Shibata is a pioneer of the newly popular cross-over style. She sang in musicals like “The King and I”; released a collection of songs from musicals including material by Andrew Lloyd Webber; and was the first female vocalist to record an all-Beatles cover album “Let it Be” in a classical style, recorded with the world-renowned Saint Martin of the Fields chamber orchestra in London in 1996. In another “first,” she was the first soprano to perform with the world famous String Quartet “Kronos” who have worked with many global musicians from Bollywood, Mexico and Romania among others, and performed with Allen Ginsberg, David Bowie, Bjork and Nine Inch Nails.
Shibata was an exclusive artist with EMI Records from 1995-2000, and then made recordings with Crown, Sony and others.
Besides her efforts for 9/11 and 3/11, Shibata has volunteered in other disasters. She and her husband, a music teacher, helped after the earthquake in Chiba. “You have to do more than donate money,” she says. “We bought furniture for people, and did labor, like helping remove sand from damaged buildings.”
Besides helping after these mass disasters, Shibata knows about survival on a personal level. On Christmas Day in 2007, after suffering from low energy, pain and trouble walking, she was told she had breast cancer. Though urged to have an immediate operation, she kept a commitment to give a concert the next day. In a similar sign of fortitude, on the day after her operation, she got out of bed and went to her new home to oversee the construction.
“I am used to holding in my feelings,” she says, wondering how that affects her life.
Chest problems from the operation, breathing problems from 9/11, and allergies from the newly laid concrete in her home forced her to fly to Boston to retrain her voice, and endure difficult breathing exercises. But in true survival mode, Shibata keeps on, and helps others.
“I use music to cope,” she explains. As another sign of that, from 2008 to 2010, she launched a musical drama, “Chocolat de Maria Callas” recounting the story of her beloved diva, whose straightforward way of life inspired Shibata in her fight against cancer.
While her “Songs for Hope” concerts have been successful, Shibata also recognizes the burdens of producing such events with little funding. Resourcefulness is essential. She was able to secure the recital hall at a discount, and colleagues’ performances as donations. The first “Songs for Hope” concert made some money from ticket sales (with 290 seats sold at $60 a piece) which she used to secure the hall for Volume 3. A designer friend made the elaborate flyers for free, and his friend printed them at no cost.
“We had to be frugal with what we could pay the musicians,” she explained. Certain musicians got a third of their usual fee, but other, younger performers were only reimbursed for transportation. “But they could enjoy the beautiful hall and playing together.”
Submitting proposals to some large companies had not been fruitful, as they may prefer backing larger projects, but Shibata remains convinced that such smaller serious ventures need to be supported.
Proceeds from “Songs for Hope Volume 2” in New York were donated to the “We Are Family Foundation,” since Shibata had been introduced to founder and renowned musician Nile Rodgers by publicists and concert managers David Minshall and Jan Goldstoff. Rodgers, the famous producer of mega-hits like Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” album and David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” had re-recorded his hit song “We Are Family” after the tragedy of 9/11, with 200 musicians, celebrities, and personalities.
Collections from “Songs of Hope Volume 3” are earmarked for the Ashinaga Foundation, that plans to build Rainbow House for orphans of the Japan earthquake.
Shibata’s pioneering music spirit has expanded to another genre she calls “Herbal Music,” given her new interest in “forest therapy” using herbs and essential oils to promote an environmentally-friendly life style and improve the presently endangered global environment.
She intends to keep her concert series going into the future. “Many charities help when a disaster first happens, but then disappear,” she says, despairing the “one-shot” helping approach. “I want to do something long-term.”
“After 49 days, people tend to forget” she says, referring to the Buddhist tradition of mourning for 49 days, during which time a dead person’s soul transitions to a new mode of existence, and then getting on with life.
“But I want to be a channel over the long-term, to show the hope and the light, so people will remember, and will never forget what happened.”
“That tragedies will plague the earth is a forever truth, so we have to live with them,” says Shibata. “But music is the universal language to let our inner voices fight against the pain and share the love and give courage to live on.”