SFOpera - San Francisco Opera Bassist Shinji Eshima Shares His Japanese Ancestry through Music

San Francisco Opera Bassist Shinji Eshima Shares His Japanese Ancestry through Music

Japanese American double bassist Shinji Eshima joined the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in 1980 and has also been a member of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra since 1982. The Berkeley native received his education at Stanford University and The Juilliard School, and is currently a faculty member at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and San Francisco State University.

Shinji Eshima. Photo: Michelle PullmanShinji Eshima. Photo: Michelle Pullman.
Shinji Eshima (top left) with friends during high school in Berkeley
Shinji Eshima (top left) with friends during high school in Berkeley.

When Shinji is not in the pit of the War Memorial Opera House playing his prized 1843 Plumerel bass (the same one featured in the Degas painting The Orchestra at the Opera which hangs at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris), he is composing music. San Francisco Ballet commissioned him to create music for two ballets, RAkU(2011) and Swimmer(2015), both works for full orchestra and featuring choreography by Yuri Possokhov.

Choreographer Yuri Possokhov (left), poet Scott Bourne (center), Shinji Eshima (right)Choreographer Yuri Possokhov (left), poet Scott Bourne (center), Shinji Eshima (right). Shinji Eshima collaborated with Scott Bourne on a chamber piece called “Bourne to Shelley” which had its world premiere at SF Opera Lab’s ChamberWORKS last year.

The Orchestra at the Opera by Edgar Degas (ca. 1870). The Orchestra at the Opera by Edgar Degas(ca. 1870). Shinji Eshima’s Plumerel bass is visible on the right.

E.O. 9066 at the Topaz Museum

On Saturday, July 8, the puppetry play E.O. 9066, featuring original music by Shinji, will be performed at the Grand Opening Celebrations of the Topaz Museum, which is dedicated to preserving the history of the internment camp experience in Delta, Utah during World War II. The title of the play E.O. 9066 is derived from the Executive Order 9066, which forced 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, who were falsely accused of being a threat after the attack on Pearl Harbor, to leave their homes and transfer to internment camps in California and Utah for up to four years. 11,000 of them were sent to Topaz, including Shinji’s father.

Topaz Museum in Delta, Utah, which has its grand opening on July 8.
Topaz Museum in Delta, Utah, which has its grand opening on July 8.

Shinji Eshima’s relatives (1941), one year before they were moved to internment camps. Shinji’s mother is on the far left.
Shinji Eshima’s relatives (1941), one year before they were moved to internment camps. Shinji’s mother is on the far left.

Architect Takane Eshima (Shinji Eshima’s father) at a church he designed near Rohnert Park.
Architect Takane Eshima (Shinji Eshima’s father) at a church he designed near Rohnert Park.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 and it is deeply meaningful to Shinji that this play, about a Berkeley family’s incarceration in the Topaz camp, will be remounted by the Bay Area-based group Lunatique Fantastique at the opening of the Topaz Museum.

San Francisco Chronicle described the play, which premiered in 2003, as “serious stuff…timely…a reflection on the erosion of civil liberties in times of national crisis.”

The Topaz Museum’s mission is to preserve the 634 acre Topaz Camp site and the history of the internment experience during World War II. The non-profit organization strives to educate the public in order to prevent a recurrence of a similar denial of American civil rights.

The theme from E.O. 9066 is a variation of a work Shinji composed originally for violin and double bass called “August 6th” (the date of the Hiroshima bombing) which premiered at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on the 50th anniversary of the bombing on August 6th, 1995. Shinji later decided to orchestrate “August 6th” for the ballet RAkU which had its world premiere with San Francisco Ballet in 2011. A documentary about RAkU will be screened as part of the San Francisco Dance Film Festival this October. For those who cannot attend the Topaz Museum opening, perhaps hearing Shinji’s evocative music in the RAkU documentary this fall would be the next best way of experiencing his work. The music is gorgeous and we wish Shinji well with this important revival of E.O. 9066 at the Topaz Museum opening this week!

More about Shinji's Family

Shinji Eshima (right) with his brother plastic surgeon Dr. Issa Eshima (left) and father architect Takane Eshima (center).
Shinji Eshima (right) with his brother plastic surgeon Dr. Issa Eshima (left) and father architect Takane Eshima (center).

Shinji is not the only one in his family who has achieved major accomplishments. His maternal grandmother created a children’s home in Guadalupe, California and was a priest at a Buddhist temple in Berkeley. Shinji’s maternal grandfather, also a Buddhist priest, was interned at the infamous Tule Lake camp. His paternal grandfather emigrated from Japan to the United States and was a member of the samurai class. Shinji’s father was an architect and owned his own business. Shinji’s brother, Dr. Issa Eshima, is a famous plastic surgeon in San Francisco. 

 Shinji’s maternal grandmother, Shinobu Matsuura, with her family.
Shinji’s maternal grandmother, Shinobu Matsuura, with her family. 

Shinji’s cousin on the bottom left is Hiro Imamura, a pianist who toured with Maestro Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. Imamura even performed at the War Memorial Opera House. As a child Shinji waited for her at the North Stage Door, the same set of doors he now walks through to go to work!

Thank you, Shinji, for sharing your personal stories and photos with us. We look forward to hearing more of your music and experiencing you perform in the orchestra pit of the War Memorial Opera House.

Shinji Eshima. Photo: Michelle Pullman
Shinji Eshima. Photo: Michelle Pullman

 

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