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Kabuki Club: The Sumidagawa Project

Three versions. One haunting tale. A mother searches for her lost son. Driven half-mad with worry, she meets a ferryman on the Sumida River who may know something. But is she prepared to learn the truth? The tragic story of Sumidagawa has haunted Japanese and Western artists for hundreds of years. Join us as we explore three very different versions of the story: Noh theatre, Kabuki theatre, and Britten’s chamber opera.

Check out the links below and explore on your own one of the most haunting tales in world history.

Related Links

General links about Noh, Kabuki, and other Japanese performing arts are here.

Videos (see also Related Videos below)

  1. Noh version of Sumidagawa (final scene)

  2. Watch Britten’s Curlew River in its entirety in a highly-acclaimed production staged by the Japanese actor and director Yoshi Oïda.

  3. Excerpts from various productions of Britten’s Curlew River

Synopses/Translations/Primary Sources

  1. Sumidagawa Noh play synopsis, translation, modern Japanese version, commentary, and photo story board (

  2. Illustrated English translation (1955) of Sumidagawa Noh play used by Britten in composing Curlew River

  3. Original Japanese text of Sumidagawa Noh play (requires Internet Explorer)

  4. Synopses and commentary of Noh Sumidagawa, Curlew River, and Butoh Sumidagawa (City Opera Vancouver)

  5. Episode Nine of the Tale of Ise (inspiration for the Sumidagawa Noh play) (Japanese)

  6. Sumidagawa Kabuki play synopsis (

  7. Sumidagawa Kabuki play synopsis (Shochiku)

  8. Sumidagawa Kabuki play synopsis (A Guide to the Japanese Stage)

  9. Curlew River synopsis by Chistopher Hossfeld

  10. Curlew River Wikipedia entry (includes synopsis)

  11. Translation of Te lucis ante terminum, the plainsong prayer which begins and ends Curlew River


  1. “The weeping mothers in Sumidagawa, Curlew River, and medieval European religious plays,” by Mikiko Ishii

  2. “The Evolution of Curlew River,” from Britten and the Far East: Asian influences in the music of Benjamin Britten, by Mervyn Cooke

  3. “Sumidagawa and Curlew River: Britten’s Encounter with Noh,” podcast with Professor Tomotaka Sekine and Dr. Daisaku Mukai

  4. Brief musical analysis of Curlew River, by Chistopher Hossfeld

  5. “Orientalism in Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River,” by Jean Hodgins

  6. “Rituals: The War Requiem and Curlew River,” by Philip Rupprecht

  7. “Curlew River” chapter from Benjamin Britten: His Life and Operas, by Eric Walter White

  8. Commentary on Curlew River, by Kenaz Filan

  9. Synopses and commentary of Noh Sumidagawa, Curlew River, and Butoh Sumidagawa (City Opera Vancouver)

  10. オペラ “Curlew River” における能『隅田川』の変容 (Japanese)

  11. Program from 1967 production at Fair Lane Festival in Michigan

  12. Denise Fujiwara’s Sumidagawa (Butoh version) from Butoh: Metamorphic Dance and Global Alchemy, by Sondra Fraleigh

Related Videos

  1. Russian ballet. Ennosuke II created the Kabuki version of Sumidagawa after being inspired by the Russian ballet he saw in London in 1919. It’s uncertain what pieces he saw, but it’s possible that he saw this scene from “Ondine,” which had been in regular rotation in Russian ballet. What is certain is how uncannily similar elements of this scene are with the Kabuki Sumidagawa that Ennosuke created.

  2. Gagaku Japanese Imperial Court music, an influence on Britten’s Curlew River – first of a series of videos introducing gagaku accompanying bugagku dance

  3. Dudley Moore’s parody of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears

  4. Butoh version of Sumidagawa, Water in the Desert Festival, Portland, OR

  5. Susumu Yoshida’s Sumidagawa opera

  6. Sumidagawa is in the category of “Madwomen” Noh plays. There are quite a few mad scenes in opera, especially the bel canto era in the early 19th Century. One modern example is at the end of Britten’s Peter Grimes. (Britten also famously parodied the form in his Midsummer Night’s Dream.) There are famous “mad” scenes in Shakespeare as well (Ophelia, Lear, etc.). It’s interesting how different artists at different times and in different cultures all saw the dramatic potential of writing scenes featuring “crazy” people. Click here for the “mad” scene in Donizetti’s opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, featuring Natalie Dessay at the Met.

Performance Reviews

  1. Review of Yoshi Oida’s production of Curlew River in New York (2007)

  2. Reviews of Olivier Py’s production of Curlew River, Lyceum, Edinburgh (2005)

  3. Review of Czech production of Curlew River (2005) – pp. 40 ff.

  4. Reviews of Graham Vick’s production of Curlew River at BBC Prom 17 in London (2004)

  5. Review of Graham Vick’s production of Curlew River at BBC Prom 17 in London by Nick Breckenfield (2004)

  6. Review of Kinki Sakurama’s production of Curlew River in Suffolk, England (2001)

  7. Review of Chanticleer’s production of Curlew River in San Francisco (1998)

  8. Review of Voice of the Spirit, London Voices recording of Curlew River at the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (1998)

  9. Review of Sumidagawa (Tessenkai Noh Troupe) and Curlew River (Jonathan Eaton production) by Anthony Tommasini (1997)

  10. Review of Sumidagawa (Tessenkai Noh Troupe) and Curlew River (Jonathan Eaton production) by Lindsley Cameron (1997)

  11. Review of St Giles’s Church performance of Curlew River in Cripplegate, City of London (1996)

  12. Review of Center for Contemporary Opera’s production of Curlew River (1988)

  13. Review of Southwestern University’s production of Curlew River in Texas (1985)

  14. Review of Chamber Opera Theater’s production of Curlew River (1984)

  15. Excellent review of the original production of Curlew River (1966)

  16. Review of the original production of Curlew River (1965)

  17. Sumidagawa (Natsu Nakajima’s Butoh version) / Curlew River performances in Vancouver, Canada (2007)

  18. Sumidagawa (Susumu Yoshida’s opera version), France (2007/2008)

In 2011, JETAANC Kabuki Club explored three versions of the story: Noh theatre, Kabuki theatre, and Britten’s chamber opera:

Sumidagawa (Noh version) September 11, 2011, 2pm, Center for Japanese Studies, UC Berkeley First performed in medieval Japan, the Noh version of Sumidagawa has moved audiences for centuries with its particular blend of mystery and pathos. A master work in the kyojomono category of Noh play—dramas of madwomen.

Sumidagawa (Kabuki version) September 18, 2011, 2pm, Oakland Asian Cultural Center With inspiration from Russian ballet, the Noh version was adapted to the Kabuki stage. The result is one of the great modern masterpieces of Kabuki. The famed onnagata Nakamura Utaemon VI plays the mother in one of his signature roles.

Curlew River (chamber opera version) October 16, 2011, 2pm, Center for Japanese Studies, UC Berkeley With special guest, internationally-recognized actor, director, and composer, Jeffrey Bihr, director of Chanticleer’s critically acclaimed production of Curlew River. Benjamin Britten was a world-renowned composer when he saw the Noh Sumidagawa in Japan in 1956. Intensely moved, he vowed to write a chamber opera of the story. Transposing the setting to the Curlew River in medieval England, Britten composed a powerful and touching parable for our times.

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