With Tokyo Nikikai Opera Theatre, German director Peter Konwitschny will stage “Eugene Onegin” in Tokyo from Sept. 12 to 15.
Raised in Leipzig and going on to study in postwar Berlin, the 63-year-old director, a son of the famous conductor Franz Konwitschny, started his career as assistant director at the Berliner Ensemble theater founded by famed playwright Bertolt Brecht. But now, having worked for many opera houses around Germany and beyond, Konwitschny is one of today’s most notable directors, who makes fresh and surprising operas that confound and polarize capacity audiences.
One such opera was a production of Carl Maria von Weber’s “Der Freischutz” in Hamburg in 1999. The story tells of a ranger, Max, who makes a pact with the Devil to help him win a contest and by extension his lover’s hand. Driven by regret, Max publicly confesses that he cheated, but is spared banishment when a religious hermit convinces Duke Ottokar to give the ranger a softer punishment.
Konwitschny’s first collaboration with Tokyo Nikikai was a presentation of Mozart’s last opera, “La Clemenza di Tito,” in 2006, which was praised as the best opera performance in Japan that year by major classical magazine Ongaku no Tomo. Feeling good chemistry with the theater, Konwitschny has come back to Tokyo to work with Nikikai again. This time, Konwitschny presents the 19th-century Russian masterpiece “Eugene Onegin,” composed by Tchaikovsky and based on poet Alexander Puschkin’s novel in verse. Since it premiered in Leipzig in 1995, the production has been performed in Barcelona, Amsterdam and Bratislava in Slovakia, garnering good reviews.
Konwitschny has been rehearsing with the all-Japanese singers of Nikikai since Aug. 20, and will continue until the day before the curtain goes up. During this intensive rehearsal period, he gave the JT his opinions on opera and direction.
Do you often spend a long time rehearsing the singers?
Yes. I stayed for four weeks when I did “(La Clemenza di) Tito” with Nikikai. In Europe, too, especially when I direct a new production, I spend six weeks or more.
What is your impression of Japan and Japanese opera companies?
Generally speaking, I think that Japanese people are very disciplined, which keeps their interactions polite. And they are strongly engaged in their pursuits. For example, when we are doing a rehearsal, they don’t mind working a little overtime. They won’t say, “It’s break time now; we have to stop.” I appreciate their cooperation. In other words, in Europe, which has the oldest culture among Western civilization, I feel society is declining, whereas in Japan, I still find a fresh and positive atmosphere.
Why did you choose to direct “Eugene Onegin” out of all the Russian operas?
It is rare that I select the piece myself; I usually just direct what I am commissioned to by an opera house. No operas are bad or uninteresting in themselves; there are only those that are poorly directed. “Eugene Onegin” is considered rather rambling, and Russian conductor Alexander Anissimov, with whom I am working now, says that audiences in Russia tend to sleep during the first 20 minutes and they won’t wake up until Onegin appears on stage, which they think is the beginning of the drama. But I think “Eugene Onegin” is really a wonderful piece, and the first 20 minutes are challenging for a director. The question is not the piece itself, nor the singers, but the direction.
Are there any linguistic difficulties?
When I directed “Eugene Onegin” for the first time, I studied Russian until I understood every single word of the text. When dealing with a libretto written in a foreign language, I think you should learn that language. It would be ideal if the singers could also learn the original language, but I know that they hardly have enough time. I think that singers who sing in their own language from the heart can act according to every word they sing. If the language has no meaning for the singers, the actions can’t help becoming bad, even if the singer understands the story line.
I was impressed by the DVD of “Der Freischutz.” What was the significance of the red elevator toward stage right?
In opera, religion plays an important role. According to Christianity, upstairs is heaven and the basement is hell, where devils live. I wanted to express this idea ironically through the elevator. And red is the color of warning.
And to my surprise, the hermit, who changes the judgment of the duke in the last scene, came on stage from the first line of seats dressed not as a religious man but as a businessman!
He is a rich sponsor who loves the opera. The role of the hermit who changes the mind of the duke was very provocative in 18th-century Europe, where this opera was created during political chaos. As I wanted to keep my production faithful to the ironic message of the original, I expressed the hermit as somebody who has money, instead of religious power, because people today are all dependent on money, aren’t they?
Interesting! What is your message to those who are not so familiar with opera?
There is a common conception that opera is something difficult to understand. But I think my interpretation is simple. The biggest barrier is your own prejudice against opera.
And what appeal could the 19th-century Russian opera “Eugene Onegin” hold for a contemporary Japanese audience?
The 19th century was a period in which people lost God, on whom they had relied for a long time. They lost all confidence in themselves. So in this opera, even when the heroine says, “I love you; please love me too,” the hero cannot take her words seriously. It is a very important chance for him to grab, but he does not understand it. Pushkin’s novel, Tchaikovsky’s music and my direction all send the message that people should definitely grab the chance of love. Actually, we long for that.
Tokyo Nikikai Opera Theatre performs “Eugene Onegin” at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan in Ueno Park on Sept. 12 (6:30 p.m.) and Sept. 13, 14 and 15 (2 p.m.). Tickets are ¥10,000-18,000 from the Nikikai Ticket Center ( 3796-1831). For more details, visit www.nikikai.net.