Hikikomori! – a new opera for our times

hikikomori! is a new opera by young composer Zygmund (Zyggy) de Somogyi.

The work was commissioned by Nigel and Sue masters of  not-for-profit opera production group Opera in Oborne (Oborne is a small village outside Sherborne in Dorset and the venue for the performances), and supported by Cameratina, a group of classical music enthusiasts who co-fund small-scale operas and recitals.

Zyggy was commissioned to write a piece that was ‘of our time’; he chose Hikikomori, the modern Japanese phenomenon in which people withdraw completely from all society for years at a time as the inspiration for his new opera.

I caught up with Zyggy to find out more about the background to hikikomori! and his creative impulses for the work:

What were your musical and other influence/inspirations for this work?

Musically, hikikomori! straddles the barriers between a wide range of styles. One thing that draws me to the opera is the aspect of timelessness that telling a story through the medium provides: two operas that greatly inspired the musicality of hikikomori! are George Benjamin’s Written On Skin and Kaija Sariaaho’s Innocence, which both craft narratives that simultaneously feel both incredibly contemporary and incredibly timeless. I also took inspiration from the story beats of psychological horror films such as Psycho and mother! (which the title of the opera pays homage to.)

Stylistically, the opera inhabits a post-tonal sound world, with hints of jazz harmony and sparse elements of new-tonalism throughout (including a juxtaposition near the opera’s finale.) However, for myself — in the same manner of the unconventional nature of a libretto adapted from a video game — the musical inspiration for hikikomori! stemmed less from the tropes of contemporary opera, and more from the emo and alternative rock records I grew up listening to. I hope that people who feel nostalgic for bands like My Chemical Romance and Funeral for a Friend, or are fans of bands such as Creeper, Bring Me The Horizon, and Havelocke, will get a lot from this opera — just as those who are interested in contemporary classical music.

Tell us more about the subject matter and choice of the Japanese word Hikikomori as a title for the work….

The word “hikikomori” derives from the Japanese word for a social phenomenon in which young people — particularly Japanese men — shut themselves away from the world, locking themselves in their rooms for months, years, or even decades on end.
The libretto of hikikomori! is a semi-adaptation of the story of indie psychological horror video game OMORI. The storyline of OMORI centres on a young shut-in boy, living in a childlike dream world in his own head, as his denial-fuelled adventures with his childhood friends gives way to a hidden, tragic truth.

Through a loose retelling of the story of OMORI and the social phenomenon of hikikomori, the opera also comments on the collective trauma that we have experienced over the past two years. The effect of the pandemic on young people, in particular, has been dramatic: a survey conducted by The Guardian shows that 7% of seventeen-year-olds have attempted suicide (source: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/feb/21/uk-17-year-olds-mental-health-crisis), and a further 24% admitted to self-harm, in the first year of the pandemic.

While the trauma and isolation felt by the opera’s titular hikikomori has its roots in a more intimate grief, the universal themes I have strived to realise through this opera can be applied to a multitude of facets of our imposed lockdown: the fears of our own mortality, the loved ones taken from us too soon, the constant headlines reminding us of the world’s gravitas.

Describe your experience of working with other singers/musicians

It has been an immense joy and privilege to work with an incredibly talented and dedicated cohort of singers and instrumentalists over the course of the opera’s gestation. The premiere performance of hikikomori! features soprano Iuno Connolly, mezzo-soprano Katy Thomson, tenor Liam Bonthrone, and baritone Kieran Rayner, accompanied by Michelle Santiago on piano, under the artistic direction and mentorship of the Royal Opera House’s Susanna Stranders. We have recently finished a series of workshops in central London on the opera’s minutiae, and our performers have lent incredible performances that have brought the dream world and its characters to life — which has been an amazing feat, considering all of the singers are also busy learning Pauline Viardot’s Cendrillon for the same weekend!

What you hope people will take away from hearing your music?

In essence, hikikomori! is an opera about grief, trauma, isolation, survivor’s guilt, and recovery from all of the aforementioned. While exploration of these topics may be understandably uncomfortable or painful for some — as the titular hikikomori faces in the darkest depths of his mind, in the opera’s final act — for myself, a confrontation with the truth and its consequences is how we forge the path to acceptance, and the way we can bring ourselves to move on.

hikikomori! premieres on 4 April 2022, at 3.30pm at St. Cuthbert’s Church, Oborne, Dorset. The premiere will be preceded by a talk by the composer, facilitated by artistic director Susanna Stranders.

Tickets cost £10 – contact Opera in Oborne at 01935 817194 or email info@operainoborne.org to reserve your place. Limited capacity. More information