With the publication last week of the new Michelin Guide, the world may now know Tokyo to be the culinary capital that it is. Opera, on the other hand, lags slightly behind, although compared to many other cities there is still an embarrassment of riches, writes Benjamin Woodward.
The scene is heavily dominated by European opera companies, trundling through the capital with their singers, chorus, orchestra and sets on a regular basis. It’s a task to choose, let alone tell them apart, so here is a guide to some of the highlights of the first half of 2008. Be warned: even the most expensive productions sell out quickly.
Starting with the homegrown, the Tokyo Opera Nomori festival (the Tokyo Forest of Opera) is held annually in April at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan in Ueno. It’s a recent addition to the opera calendar, having only kicked off in 2005, but along with the Saito Kinen Festival in Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture, it’s definitely a high point of the year for opera.
Like Saito Kinen, Opera Nomori is organized by world-renowned conductor Seiji Ozawa, and each year it showcases one opera. Two years ago it opened with a searing “Elektra” by Richard Strauss. This year it was Wagner’s “Tannhauser.” In 2008 it will be Tchaikovsky’s wonderful “Eugene Onegin.”
“Onegin” will be performed in conjunction with the Vienna Staatsoper, where Ozawa is music director, and complements last year’s production of Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” at the Saito Kinen Festival. Dalibor Jenis will sing as Onegin, Rozana Briban as Tatyana and Marius Brenciu as Lensky. Ozawa himself will conduct, leading an orchestra assembled for the occasion.
Tokyo Opera Nomori takes place April 13-20 at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan Main Hall. Tickets are ¥10,000-¥36,000 (tel.  3296-0600).
Russian opera seems to be in vogue at the present in Japan, and Russian conductor and firebrand Valery Gergiev will be bringing the famed Mariinsky Theater to Tokyo Bunka Kaikan and NHK Hall at the end of January with productions of Mussorgsky’s “Khovanshchina,” Borodin’s “Prince Igor” and Prokofiev’s “The Love for the Three Oranges,” as well as one Italian opera in the form of Rossini’s “Il Viaggio a Reims.” Gergiev has almost single-handedly managed to put Russian opera on the map through productions, though fairly conservatively staged, that are filled with an edge-of-the-seat passion and a blazing vitality. Here’s the rare chance to hear these Russian operas as they should be done: by Russian musicians, who play this music as though it were second nature. It’s one not to miss but, with prices reaching up to a cool ¥52,000, nor is it cheap.
Mariinsky Opera perform the following at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan: “Khovanshchina” on Jan. 26-27 (tickets ¥10,000-¥47,000); “The Love for Three Oranges,” Jan. 28-29 (¥10,000-¥47,000); “Il Viaggio a Reims” Jan. 31, Feb. 2 (¥10,000-¥47,000); at NHK Hall, “Prince Igor,” Feb. 1-3 (¥10,000-¥50,000). For tickets call (03) 5237-7711.
Late May and early June will see the Volksoper Wien arriving from Austria with Flotow’s “Martha” and two operettas: Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” and Suppe’s “Boccaccio.” The two operettas are the productions to look out for because, like the Russians, the Viennese are hard to beat when it comes to their own native art form.
Volksoper Wien perform “Die Fledermaus” on May 16-27; “Boccaccio,” May 30-31, June 1, 6; “Martha,” June 6,8. Tickets are ¥8,000-¥39,000 (tel.  3791-8888).
Also of note is the Paris National Opera’s exciting production of Dukas’ little-heard “Arianne et Barbe Bleu” in July at Bunkamura Orchard Hall in Shibuya, with Willard White and Deborah Polaski in the main roles. This will be followed by a dark double bill of Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” and Janacek’s “Diary of One Who Disappeared,” in the same month, as well as a new production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” from the enfant terrible director Peter Sellars.
Paris National Opera perform “Arianne et Barbe Bleu” on July 23, 26; “Bluebeard’s Castle”/”Diary of One Who Disappeared,” July 29, 30; “Tristan und Isolde,” July 27, 31. Tickets are ¥20,000-¥58,000 (tel.  3201-8116).