The inspirations for Nathan Davis’ dance opera Hagoromo are the venerable Noh play of the same name, and the earlier legend the play is based on. The story that Davis adopts from these sources is one in which the marvelous intersects with the mundane: the hagoromo is a feather garment worn by the swan maiden, a celestial being, which is stolen by a fisherman who finds it hanging from a tree. In exchange for seeing the swan maiden’s dance symbolizing the lunar phases, the fisherman returns the garment to her, thus allowing her to return to the sky.
While retaining the classic story of the fisherman and the swan maiden, Davis introduces elements of his own. While acknowledging traditional Noh conventions he alters or expands them. For example, he supplements the standard Noh orchestra of flute and drums to include bassoon, violin and guitar; he changes the male chorus typical of Noh to a girls’ chorus; and he divides each of the story’s two roles between a singer and a dancer.
Musically, Hagoromo is divided in two as well. The first several sections are set in heaven, while the remaining sections are set on earth. The music for heaven is, appropriately enough, ethereal and stately, couched in long tones and centered on the ghostly sound of violin harmonics. Only in the last part of the heaven segment does something happen to overturn this celestial serenity: the music turns agitated when the hagoromo is lost. It’s an apt transition to the second, earth segment of the opera, where the main drama takes place. The music there reflects the story’s conflict and resolution not only in the instrumental setting but also and particularly in the singing, which carries the emotional force and range one would want from an opera.