The Elusive White Fox by Okakura Kakuzō

Okakura Kakuzō dedicated his libretto, The White Fox, to Isabella shortly before his death. In the following years, many composers wanted to write the accompanying music for the operatic work, and it will finally make its US premiere, led by Hirai Hideaki, in the spring of 2024.

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To the Presence, Fenway Court, Without whose suggestion this foolish attempt would never have been made I dedicate this humble result.

— Okakura Kakuzō’s dedication to Isabella Stewart Gardner in his libretto The White Fox, 2 March 1913

Six months before he died, Japanese art historian and philosopher Okakura Kakuzō dedicated his libretto The White Fox to his dear friend Isabella Stewart Gardner. Although the opera remained unrealized long after Okakura’s—and eventually Gardner’s—death, persistent and contentious efforts to bring it to life in several forms can be read in the letters of Gardner, her associates, and hopeful artists and devotees. The libretto’s reputation ranged widely abroad, in Japan, a German prisoner of war camp, the halls of French nobility, and the United Kingdom. Charles Martin Loeffler (1861–1935), to whom the right to set the words to music was originally granted, tenaciously guarded those rights against all who sought them, though he was ultimately unable to bring the work to fruition himself. His efforts, too, are partially legible in letters in Gardner’s possession.

Before considering the fate of The White Fox, what of its origins? What was Okakura’s original motive for writing the libretto, and his choice of tale to adapt? The answers to these questions are elusive. Okakura adapted the legend of Kuzunoha, a tale with a diverse literary pedigree in Japan. In the story, a young nobleman, Abe no Yasuna, saves a white fox from a hunter. The fox visits the man in the form of a woman named Kuzunoha. The two marry and have a child, but ultimately Kuzonoha decides to return to the forest. Yasuna and their son search for Kuzunoha and eventually find her in fox form. One of its themes, of a long-lost love’s being unexpectedly regained, is ever so vaguely hinted at in a 1906 letter from Okakura to Gardner. In the letter, he thanks her for her generous efforts to reunite a mother and son: “I am thinking of the mother of Ushimura and how grateful she will be to you when she knows that she owes the return of her son to you after so many years—a son whom she believed was dead!”

A woman, with a fox's head seen through a screen, walking through a door, leaving her child behind in the house.

Scripps College, Claremont. Chikanobu and Yoshitoshi Woodblock Prints, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Marer

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (Japanese, 1839–1892), The Fox-woman Kuzunoha Leaving Her Child, 1890. Woodblock print, 37 x 25 cm (14 9/16 x 9 7/8 in.)

The Library of Congress holds undated musical sketches by Loeffler, which musically adapt The Peony Lantern, a kabuki play translated as a short story in 1899 by Lafcadio Hearn.1 The Peony Lantern relates the tale of a man who falls in love with a woman who turns out to be a ghost. Whether Loeffler was working on this piece as an alternative to The White Fox, or his frustrations in setting the text led him to approach Okakura about a new libretto written for the purpose, cannot be said. Whatever the origin of the libretto, it becomes clear in reading the flurry of letters sent in its wake that its fate to remain un-composed was due to two refusals: Loeffler’s jealous refusal to allow others to adapt or set the piece, and Okakura’s initial refusal to concede changes to the text that would allow it to be more easily set to music.

Okakura wrote to Gardner three weeks after dedicating the libretto, refusing Loeffler’s suggestion to reduce the libretto’s three-acts to two and flatly rejecting his suggestion to realize it as a pantomime, asking her to inform Loeffler that he could cut the text as he saw fit. For more than a decade, Loeffler subsequently attributed his lack of progress on the work to this initial inflexibility, even after Gardner had given him carte blanche to alter the text as he saw fit. The opera would remain unwritten, but not for lack of interest; there was a litany of correspondence about the libretto.

A white fox drawn in watercolor sits in a forest next to a tree and blue flowers.

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (P3n20). Isabella displayed this photograph in the Okakura Case in the Blue Room.

Shimomura Kanzan (Japanese, 1873–1930), White Fox, about 1913. Watercolor on paper, 29 x 16 cm (11 7/16 x 6 5/16 in.)

In 1914, Okakura’s brother Yoshisaburo wrote to Gardner asking for permission to accede to Okakura’s family’s desire to see the play translated into French. In 1916, the Welshman Bryceson Treharne (1879–1948) wrote to Gardner for permission to write the opera. Matthew Prichard (1865–1936), a curator and friend of Gardner and Okakura, had suggested to Treharne during their mutual internment in Ruhleben prison camp that he set it. Obliquely decrying in his letter the turbulence and noise of modern music, he promised to set it in a simple musical style. In the same year, the playwright and translator Henry Furst (1893–1967) wrote to Gardner, informing her that it would be best to allow the darling of the London theater scene Gordon Craig (1872–1966) stage it as a play in the UK to prevent the French from garnering the glory, since there had been a renegade attempt to produce the work at the Paris Opera. Yoshisaburo wrote again in 1917, informing Gardner that the polymath and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) wished to have the libretto published. Three years after that, the Count Bérenger de Miramon wrote Gardner, stating that Prichard had made him aware of the libretto before the war, and, appealing to Franco-American solidarity, requested total French rights to the work to translate and assign it to a suitable composer.

A finely drawn white fox with grass in its mouth sits in a forest surrounded by trees and gold and brown leaves.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Shimomura Kanzan (Japanese, 1873–1930), White Fox, 1918. Color on paper; right-side of a pair of folding screens, 186 x 207 cm. Tokyo National Museum

As late as 1927, Loeffler was still fending off rivals: Henry Andrews in Cambridge, England, someone else in France. Loeffler continued to promise that The White Fox was forthcoming, but it would not be until 2007 that the long-nascent opera was finally given life. Toguchi Jun composed an opera based on the English libretto, as part of the centennial of the founding of the Tokyo University of the Arts while residing in Boston. Hirai Hideaki then adapted the libretto into Japanese and composed his own version nine years later, in 2016.  A recording of an aria from the opera is available on YouTube. It is scheduled to have its US premiere at the New York Festival Orchestra in the spring of 2024.

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1Charles Martin Loeffler, Sketchbooks for various works, including a projected opera "The White Fox," 1861-1935. Library of Congress, ML96 .L61 (Case), v. 3, 24-34 cm. Lines written over the bars of music refer to Tsuju (Tsuyu), Hagiwara, and Oyone, all main characters in The Peony Lantern.