|Aiko Saita was a Japanese Canadian mezzo-soprano who had an active career during the years, 1935 to 1954. She began as a professional singer when she signed an exclusive contract with the Japan Victor Company in 1935. She performed with the Fujiwara Opera Company at various times from 1940 to her death in 1954. Her favourite roles were “Carmen” and “Ameris” in Aida. In addition, she produced a number of phono-records (78 rpm, it was before the time of high fidelity recordings) and held many concerts and recitals throughout her career. Her records, folk songs of various countries and semi-classical songs with Japanese lyrics, were popular not only in Japan but also among the Japanese living in North America. To sing to her fans across the Pacific, she conducted two concert tours, one in 1937 followed by another in 1939. For the Japanese Canadians in the West Coast, her concerts were home-comings by their favourite daughter. As someone said, “My mother took me, we all had to go.” |
Aiko Saita was born on March 15, 1909, as the third daughter of Kojiro and Koma Saita. After her father died when Aiko was four years old, her mother remarried and became a Yoshikuni. She had four sons by her second marriage.
The family lived at No. 10, Number One Japanese Town of Cumberland, BC. Aiko spent her childhood in Cumberland until she moved to Vancouver to attend high school. Aiko continued her training at the Toronto Conservatory of Music (now the Royal Toronto Conservatory) from which she graduated in 1932 with a degree, A.T.C.M. (Associate of Toronto Conservatory of Music). While a student of the Conservatory, Aiko gave recitals in Vancouver. At one of these, Toshiko Sekiya, a well-known Japanese soprano, heard Aiko sing and was so impressed that she encouraged her to study in Italy where Sekiya herself was trained.
When the Japanese Canadian community learned of this, they organized a support group, Saita Aiko Koenkai.
This made it possible for her to continue her study. Aiko sailed for Italy in 1933. Sekiya arranged to find a teacher in
Milan. She was Madam M. Ripa under whom Aiko was to train until her debut in 1935. Her debut in July, 1935, received very good reviews in the local press which commented on her “... rich volume, beautiful colour and clear diction.” It went on to say that she can be compared favourably to any mezzo-soprano of the first rank in Italy.
This led to offers to work in Italy. However, Aiko decided to sign an exclusive contract with Japan Victor Company to become one of the “red label” recording artists. Among these were Yoshie Fujiwara, a tenor, who established the first Japanese opera company in 1932.
On October 9, 1935, four days after reaching Japan, Aiko gave her first recital at the Gunjin Kaikan in Tokyo. She was immediately recognized as an important talent with a voice unique in Japan. Her voice was described as having a volume and richness of colour unusual among Japanese singers and she was praised for the accuracy of her notes, her feeling for music and intelligent musicianship. A special mention was made of her lower register which was charming with a hint of wildness, something not often found in Japan.
As the red label performer of Japan Victor Company, Aiko made a number of records. What remains now are folk songs and semi-classical songs. Under a pseudonym, Yoshie Tachibana, she also recorded a number of more popular songs called Katei Kayo or “Songs of Home”. These recordings were very popular in Japan where record
players were becoming common. This was the time when kyafei [cafe] or coffee houses became popular places where young couples met and chatted to the background of modern, i.e. Western, music. However, it was still before the time of LP’s and stereophonic recordings.
Live performance was indispensible and Aiko held many recitals and concerts. In 1937, in order to bring her live performance to her fans in Canada, she arranged a concert tour. She sailed from Japan in May for Vancouver. Her first recital was on July 7, at Nihonjin Kaikan, Vancouver. She travelled to the remote areas of British Columbia
where there were Japanese immigrants, “some ... had never attended a concert before.” On one night, “ Encore after encore was called for and in all she sang about 100 songs.”
After appearing at Hotel Vancouver on October 30, and a recital at the Empress Theatre on November 3, she wound up a successful concert tour and returned to Japan. She followed the success of 1937 with another tour two years later. This was a larger tour taking in various parts of Canada as well as the west coast of the United States:
California, Oregon and Washington State, including Los Angeles, Hollywood, San Francisco, Sacramento and Seattle. She auditioned for and was granted a licence to broadcast by NBC. She was pleased that she might be
broadcasting in North America in the future. She extended her tour to include Hawaii in December and returned to Japan on January 9, 1940.
But it was the operas which kept her busy professionally. On the list of formal performances by the Fujiwara Opera in 1951, Aiko appeared in the cast of the following:
December, 1947; January,
1949; February, 1950; December,
In addition, there were tours to major cities outside Tokyo. In 1950, for instance, the company took =Carmen
to nineteen cities in Japan. It was now over ten years since she had been in Canada and her thoughts turned to home. She told the Continental Times how she missed her brother, Dr Harold Saita, in Vancouver and Dr Miyake who was now living in Toronto. She also wanted to see her friends again. Her mother and half brothers had joined
her in Japan in 1946 after leaving the internment camps, so she knew what had happened in Canada during the
war years. Although she was suffering from the illness which was to end her life, she had recovered enough to leave Tokyo for Vancouver on September 12, 1953, to begin her Canadian tour.
For the recitals, in addition to Vancouver, Aiko sought out centres where Japanese Canadians lived after they had been dispersed from the West Coast: Toronto, London, Hamilton, and Montreal. Plans were made for her to appear in Fort William (now Thunder Bay), Winnipeg and Lethbridge. A recital in New York City was also in the plans.
On October 1, Aiko was interviewed by the Toronto Daily Star music critic, Hugh Thomson, on CBC -TV Tabloid. This interview appeared in the Toronto Daily Star on October 2. On the next day at 8:00 p.m. a recital was held at the Ukrainian Labour Temple. This was the big recital of the tour attended by people from all around Toronto, who
remember and talk about it to this day.
But the tour was cut short in December because of the recurrence of her condition. Aiko travelled by train to Vancouver where she was operated on and hospitalized until May of 1954. Those around her realized there was no chance of recovery and on May 14, Aiko flew to Haneda Airport. She was hospitalized until her death on September 21, 1954. Her funeral was held on September 24 at Misakimachi Kyokai of Kanda, Tokyo. It was a Christian service
officiated by Rev. Takihiko Yamakita.
The news spread quickly through the community in Canada. One said, “Ai-chan came to Canada to say good-bye to us”.
- Appeared in the Nikkei Images, Summer 2004: Aiko Saita, 1909 - 1954 by Kaye Kishibe