Kento Iwasaki performs with a 13-string Japanese instrument called a koto in Washington Square Park in New York City. He will play the instrument in his opera, “Beloved Prey,” on Saturday, Sept. 24, at Kelsey Theatre. (Photo by Francois Bonneau.)
Kento Iwasaki performs with a 13-string Japanese instrument called a koto in Washington Square Park in New York City. He will play the instrument in his opera, “Beloved Prey,” on Saturday, Sept. 24, at Kelsey Theatre. (Photo by Francois Bonneau.)

Kento Iwasaki strives to reach people on an emotional level through music because he’s not good at communicating feelings through the written word.

Iwasaki is one of the main creative minds behind a “portable opera” program titled Beloved Prey, which he along with the Traveling Opera Company, will bring to his first alma mater, Mercer County Community College, on Saturday, Sept. 24, at 2 p.m. and again at 4 p.m. at Kelsey Theatre.

The show is a children-friendly fable of a lioness who kidnaps an antelope child after losing her own child to a pride of lions, and an antelope mother who seeks to rescue her offspring. Iwasaki says it is a tale of motherly love, told in English. Tickets for the one-hour show are $10 for children and $12 for adults.

Iwasaki is quick to point out that he neither came up with the concept of a portable opera, nor is he the only important contributor to this particular program.

Iwasaki says the story for the opera came about while he was viewing a painting by a friend, Alexis Kandra. The painting — and the documentary film that inspired it, “Heart of a Lioness” — was one of a predator-prey dynamic that inspired him to translate the image into music. Iwasaki and Kandra began building the opera with the collaboration of librettist Cris Ryan and choreographer Toshinori Hamada into a small, intimate program that purposely eschews the grandeur of a full-orchestra opera.

The concept of a portable opera refers to programs involving few musicians and singers. The idea has been floating around for a couple of years and has been taking on more weight among composers and opera writers. For Beloved Prey, there are three musicians playing three instruments, each of which can easily be carried in one hand. Two folding screens, one backlit to cast shadows of the singers and one a double-sided painting by Kandra, and a few colorful costumes and masks, complete the production.

While Beloved Prey is being billed as a children’s show, Iwasaki didn’t set out to specifically write it that way. When the show debuted in Long Island City last year, some folks from Kelsey dropped by and saw the potential for a performance at Kelsey. Iwasaki says the concept is accessible to children and adults, each of whom will see it on a different level.

“Nobody sees the same thing in the same way,” he says. “So how do you make something that’s unified?” The answer, he says, is to create “a flexible shared vision.”

This is where his collaborators come in. As a composer, Iwasaki says, it can get lonely. He’s basically sitting in a room, alone, composing notes. Working with artists of other media is the nitro-fuel injection in his creative engine.

Iwasaki said that although he works with other musicians, the ideas flow best for him when he works with scriptwriters who say things in words in ways he wouldn’t have figured, or with painters who bring the ferocity of their visions to life through color and form.

“When I see art, I feel the shape of things,” Iwasaki says. “It’s not quite music, it’s the shape of the art. It’s some kind of feel, like a primordial essence. A painting gives off a vibe that can be translated into music.”

Iwasaki says he’s highly inspired musically by theater and dance, drawn largely by the forms’ inherent interdisciplinary nature.

In putting music together, Iwasaki lets himself get led to a certain degree. “Writing a melody from scratch is a very intuitive process,” he says. “It is more of a channeling. You’re not really writing something, you’re sort of passing through something.”

But putting the sounds into a practical program, where music and script are timed to allow the music to match a character’s movements, for instance, is entirely different.

“Coordinating music requires a lot of guessing about how people perceive it,” he says. “The construction of a melody can even change the way a sentence is heard.”

Perception, he says, is related to feedback and participation, from everyone including the audience, and during a performance, Iwasaki is in performer mode. “Performers feel a psychic connection with the audience,” he says, “a very in-the-moment, electric connection.”

If the audience drops out during a performance, in other words, a performer knows it, without anyone having to heckle. This psychic connection is sacred. It is what Iwasaki calls “the shared dream” of the moment, the idea that the audience becomes part of the story and ceases consciously realizing that they’re only watching three people play instruments on a stage.

“You have to keep that flow just right to keep people from waking up from the dream,” he says. “On stage, it’s about being hypersensitive to that flow.”

He does, of course, like it when fellow composers and artists attend and watch objectively. They, he says, can give the kind of feedback a performer might miss while in performer mode.

Iwasaki found this connection through music around age 10. He’d originally gravitated towards piano, and at 10 or so started actually writing music. He found it the ideal way to communicate. He had kept journals trying to work out his thoughts and feelings in words, he says, but he wasn’t particularly good at doing that. When music found him, he discovered the perfect way to communicate emotions.

Sishel Claverie plays the part of the lioness in Kento Iwasaki’s “Beloved Prey.” (Photo by Adam Wamsley.)
Sishel Claverie plays the part of the lioness in Kento Iwasaki’s “Beloved Prey.” (Photo by Adam Wamsley.)

He says that at first he wanted to make people understand how he thought. But before long, he realized that people might understand him fine, just not in the way he had set out to reach them.

“People tend to think of music as subjective,” he says. In other words, a song he might write as sad, someone else thinks is a happy tune. It’s happened to him a lot.

But here’s the thing — it’s not that the other person didn’t get it. It’s that the other person experienced it fully, felt it fully. Just from a different perspective.

These days, the 29-year-old Iwasaki lives in Brooklyn, but he grew up in Illinois, Canada (where his father’s family lives) and West Windsor. His father, Larry, worked in the computer field and his mother, Kyoko, had various jobs as they moved around. Today she works at a call center for test prep students.

Iwasaki spent part of middle and all of high school in the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District. He took a few years off from college, heading to New York to freelance his music, before getting his associate’s in music from MCCC in 2009. He then transferred to Temple University for his bachelor’s and then to the Manhattan School of Music for his master’s.

He also got the chance to study koto, a 13-string Japanese harp, in Japan, thanks to a scholarship through Columbia University. He was drawn to koto by its sound, but also by its possibilities. It doesn’t look like it can do much, he says, but the possibilities are enormous. And unlike piano, which is, musically, rather rigid despite its numerous strings and keys, koto allows for gradations in sound. It is, he says, “like playing inside the piano.”

Koto is one of the three instruments featured in Beloved Prey. Iwasaki remains drawn to the instrument for its breadth and its cultural resonance in Japanese music, where sound quality is as important as arrangement.
However, Iwasaki doesn’t even take credit for being Japanese, despite his ancestry, the fact that he speaks the language fluently, and the fact that he used to visit his grandparents in Tokyo.

“I’m not really Japanese,” he says. “I would never pass as somebody who was native Japanese. I see myself as more of a bridge.”

Perhaps that’s a fitting description for someone who occupies so many realities. And so many shared dreams.
For more information on Beloved Prey or for tickets, go to kelseyatmccc.org.