Emmert shares beauty, power of noh dramas with a wider audience

After having undertaken studies with many of the genre's talented actors and musicians, Ohio native now teaches another generation

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

Richard Emmert has endeavored for decades to share the beauty and power of noh with English-speaking audiences and performers through “English noh.”

Emmert, a Tokyo resident of nearly 40 years and artistic director of an international English noh theater company, wants its members to perform with the same energy and feeling found in the classical Japanese performing art. A man who wears many hats as composer, Kita School-certified noh instructor and performer, as well as professor of Asian theater and music at Musashino University, Emmert says in his first encounter with noh he was attracted to the performance — its movement and music — but not so much to its language or story.

“I was attracted to the energy, strength and power that is in all aspects of the performance. Of course, most people think that noh is very quiet, and therefore it’s very soft. But it’s actually a very strong performing art. In the movement, chants and drum calls, there’s intensity,” he said.

He emphasizes that there is strength even in the performer’s basic posture — even though there is not much movement. “To have presence on stage is very important,” he said.

Emmert noted even if the text for English noh is structured like a noh drama, it will not make a noh play unless it is performed in its classical style. “It doesn’t become a noh play if someone performs the play in Western, realistic style,” he said.

“It’s not like Shakespeare,” he explained. “You have a Shakespeare play and you can do it in any style and people can still call it a Shakespeare play. Noh is more like opera. If you use the text of ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ for example, and don’t use Mozart’s music, is that still an opera?”

Wishing to create foreign performers who could perform noh, Emmert started a training project for foreigners in Japan in 1991. Four years later, a three-week intensive, performance-based training in dance, chant, music and history of noh was started in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. The program has since been held every year, while similar workshops have also been frequently organized in Japan.

He also cofounded the theater company Theatre Nohgaku in 2000 with other English-speaking noh performers, and has held workshops and performances at universities and venues in Japan, the U.S., Australia, England, France, China and Hong Kong.

Emmert has appeared in English-translated classical noh plays, and also composed the music for or directed English-original noh plays such as “At the Hawk’s Well,” “Drifting Fires” and “Eliza” in the 1980s.

Theatre Nohgaku’s most recent performance was “Pagoda,” a play written by Chinese-British playwright Janette Cheong, with music composed by Emmert. The play is about Cheong’s father, who traveled to England on a ship to escape a famine that ravaged rural China in the 1920s and never returned to his homeland. A joint production with the Oshima Noh Theatre of Hiroshima, it went on a European tour in 2009, followed by an Asian tour two years later.

During a recent interview, Emmert sat comfortably at a kotatsu (low, heated table) in the living room of his house in Tokyo’s Nakano, wearing a samue (traditional work wear).

Inside Emmert’s classical Western-style house, the atmosphere is a mix of Japanese and Asian tastes, with Japanese and Asian crafts and artwork covering the walls and shelves of his house, including a collection of Mithila — a style of Hindu art — that Emmert has collected during his numerous visits to India.

The house seems to almost mirror Emmert himself, who has both Western and Asian cultures embedded inside him.

Born in 1949 in Ohio to parents who were both music teachers, Emmert grew up in an environment where students from different countries — including Japan — home-stayed at his house. He then went on to study Japanese and Japanese history at Earlham College in Indiana.

In his second year, he took a seminar in noh with a friend who recommended it to him, and listened to its music for the first time. “I thought the music sounded funny at first, and tried very hard not to laugh,” he said. He was then chosen to play the shite (primary actor) in an English-original noh play “St. Francis” as part of the course work.

In 1970, Emmert came to Japan and studied at Waseda University for a year, and it was there that he developed an interest in traditional Japanese music and theater. After graduating from Earlham, he received a scholarship from Japan’s education ministry, and entered graduate school at Tokyo University of the Arts, where he researched “the difference between the various schools of noh” for his thesis.

In 1973, Don Kenny — an American who had been studying kyogen, a classical performing art in a comical form, in Japan since the 1960s and who had presented a number of English kyogen performances — asked Emmert to serve as musical director of a Tokyo performance of “St. Francis.” That prompted Emmert to study noh music on a professional level, taking lessons from Akira Matsui, the master of noh’s Kita School.

Emmert also learned noh chant and dance, shakuhachi, side flute, little drum and big drum. “In the end, I could perform all the elements of utai (chanting of noh text), shimai (dance) and hayashi (playing traditional Japanese instruments),” he said.

Emmert says that over time, he has come to really appreciate “the beauty of the poetry and the universal perspective of noh stories.”

“I feel noh is much more universal than say, kabuki,” he said. “Kabuki is more like Western theater in many cases, and it tells stories that are very much tied to Japanese culture. Noh portrays a more universal condition — often depicting human feelings and raising philosophical questions.”

Emmert said he thought he would stay in Japan only for a few years, but “somehow” ended up staying nearly four decades. He said he owes a lot to Fumio Koizumi, the late expert on folklore music, and Mario Yokomichi of noh music studies — both at the Tokyo University of the Arts — as well as many professional noh performers, including Kita School’s Akira Matsui.

“If I had not discovered noh, and become so involved in it — if I had discovered something else — then I probably wouldn’t still be in Japan,” he said.

As a foreign-born expert on noh, Emmert teaches not only foreigners but also Japanese students, who, he says, often know little about their country’s own classical performing art. “They have gotten so far away from a lot of traditions that now, they are starting to relook at those traditions. I notice that with students I teach at university. I feel that now, young Japanese are looking at noh almost in the same way that foreigners look at noh. It’s something new (to them).

“That might not have been the case when Japanese had a grandfather who sang noh and they just thought, ‘Oh it’s old and boring,’ and that’s the way everyone understood it. Now, people even don’t know that much,” he said. “Young people are wondering ‘What is noh? Why did Japanese do this?’ ” he added.

Emmert says that in Japan’s education system, there is still very little emphasis on Japanese traditional theater and music compared with what is offered about its Western counterparts. “That’s why I teach a lot about Japanese culture in general to Japanese, particularly about Japanese performing arts,” he says.

The first two parts of Emmert’s “The Guide to Noh of the National Noh Theatre” will be published in early April. For more information on the activities of Theatre Nohgaku, access www.theatrenohgaku.org