The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 25, 2002


Singing his way to Japan: Richard Bissell explores tempura, opera and Tokyo Disney

The joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall is an old one: practice, practice, practice. South Street resident Richard Bissell found an even more straightforward route to Symphony Hall in Boston: try out. A tax accountant by day who has loved singing ever since childhood, Bissell says he is now living a dream come true as a member of one of the country's most highly selective volunteer choral groups, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. And it all began in 1986 when his wife, Becky, spotted a newspaper ad inviting vocalists to attend an audition. Knowing that her husband had been a talented singer and an enthusiastic performer in his
Rich Bissell (second from left) performs with the Tokyo Opera Chorus in Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes. (Photo courtesy of Rich Bissell)
younger years, she urged him to try out.

Bissell readily admits he has little formal training as a vocalist. At the time of the audition, his only public performances occurred through his role as a tenor soloist at the Trinitarian Congregational Church in Concord. "At the audition, I heard all the singers around me talking about their degrees from Juilliard or the years they spent studying under famous singers, and I wondered what I was doing there," says Bissell. "But I soon came to realize that talent is talent; some people have it and some don't. I was given a spot in the chorus, and a lot of the people I'd heard talking about their many credentials didn't make it."

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC) is a group of about 250 volunteers who perform with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops throughout the year at venues including Symphony Hall, the Fourth of July performance on the Esplanade and the Tanglewood Festival in Lenox. "Because there are so many music schools in this area, there is an enormous number of extremely talented singers around, which is why it's possible to have such a large group be so selective and still all be volunteers," Bissell explains.

Late last fall, rumors began circulating among the members of the TFC about the possibility of a trip overseas. The group had traveled in previous years to perform in Europe and Asia; now, word going around was that Seiji Ozawa wanted them to perform an opera in Japan. Soon it was confirmed: Ozawa was conducting the Benjamin Britten opera "Peter Grimes" at the Saito Kinen Festival in Matsumoto, and he wanted TFC members to join the Tokyo Opera Chorus in the performance.

However, there was a catch — out of the 250 members of the TFC, a mere 12 were needed in Matsumoto. The choice of singers was left up to Chorus Director John Oliver, and no one knew who would be invited. But one day last December, Bissell received an e-mail listing those singers Ozawa wanted to bring to Japan. Much to his delight, his name was among the dozen listed. "Attending the festival meant taking five weeks off from work," he explains. "But since CPAs work so hard during tax season, we're able to accrue comp time to use later. So I was able to accumulate the amount of time off I needed."

Choral members depart for Japan

Bissell and the 11 other chorus members departed from the U.S. on August 3. He had tried to learn some basic Japanese as he prepared for the trip, but had little idea of what to expect once he got there. The group had been told that Matsumoto was like "the Lenox of Japan," a reference to the small Berkshire town that hosts the Tanglewood Festival, but they soon learned that the only similarity was that Matsumoto was two hours west of Tokyo, about the same distance and direction from Boston to Lenox. "When we pictured spending a month in a small rural village, we were a bit apprehensive about how we'd get along being immersed in Japanese culture. But when we arrived, we discovered that Matsumoto is a city of 200,000," Bissell recalls. "Once we saw that, we were less apprehensive about language and cultural barriers."

Inevitably, of course, cultural differences crop up when Americans spend time in Asia. All of the travelers were surprised by their hotel accommodations. Each group member had a tiny hotel room with almost no storage space except a small cabinet. They stacked their month's worth of clothes on window sills and headboards. Japanese cuisine was fairly new to most of them as well. "We all tried new tastes and textures, some of which were outside of our food comfort zones and some not," Bissell says. "We ate squid, eel, okra, corn, fish and crab, and drank sake." They welcomed the occasional non-Japanese meal as well. "Eating out every night, each of us developed our favorites among the local restaurants," Bissell recalls. "There was a French restaurant nearby that served better French food than I've ever found in Paris, and across the street from our hotel was an Australian pub that had western food with a Japanese influence."

Seiji Ozawa, founder of festival

The next several weeks were an exhausting whirlwind of activity as the Americans prepared for the festival performances and acclimated themselves to their new surroundings. Their first big surprise was the concert hall itself, a magnificent facility that far exceeded their expectations. Founded by Seiji Ozawa as part of his ongoing efforts to bring more western music to Japan, the Saito Kinen Festival is a highly prestigious cultural event, and throughout their stay the chorus members enjoyed celebrity treatment. "As Westerners, we were often asked what brought us to town," Bissell recalls. "When we said we were with the festival, people were always impressed. Some even asked for our autograph!"

Little time for sightseeing

With a rehearsal schedule far more demanding than they were accustomed to in the U.S., there was little time for sight-seeing; Bissell counts four free days in the five weeks he spent in Matsumoto. He used one free day to join an excursion to Utsukushi Gahara Kogen, the highest plateau in the Japanese Alps. His wife Becky joined him for ten days toward the end of the stay, and the two did something that they laughingly refer to as "extremely Japanese"; they visited Tokyo Disney Sea.

One of the most memorable experiences that the two shared was a visit to a doll-making workshop owned and run by a two-generation family. The artisans spent hours showing their guests a variety of dolls and explaining their craft. The Bissells eventually selected one hand-crafted doll to bring home. The English-speaking daughter-in-law in the family explained to them how the doll represented a fable about an ancient calligrapher who found motivation for his art while watching a frog try to jump to a distant branch.

Tenor returns in time to sing in 9/11 commemorative service

The TFC's stay in Japan culminated in four flawless performances of "Peter Grimes." The month spent in Matsumoto enhanced Bissell's appreciation for Japanese culture and gave him the opportunity to perform with some of the world's finest opera singers. More than anything, though, it reinforced his belief in the power of music to transcend boundaries of culture, language and values — a belief poignantly underscored just a few days after his return from Japan when he sang "Amazing Grace" at the Concord Trinitarian Congregational Church. The service was in commemoration of the victims of last year's terrorist attacks, one of whom was a fellow parishioner from Concord. "What more could any singer want than performing a complex opera on a professional level in a large Japanese concert hall one day, and four days later singing a simple hymn for my friends and fellow church members?" he reflects. "Communication through music is the common link, and I am privileged to have been the messenger."

2002 The Carlisle Mosquito