Nissay Theatre celebrates 45 years

by Chiho Iuchi

Nissay Theatre in Yurakucho, Tokyo, will present Leos Janacek’s opera “The Makropulos Case” on Nov. 20, 22 and 24 to mark the venue’s 45th anniversary.

“Why Makropulos? Because the story is dramatic though scarcely known,” says Yasuo Niwa, the chief producer of the theater’s planning department. “On the 40th anniversary, we succeeded in staging ‘Lulu,’ which is also rarely performed.”

“Lulu,” by Austrian composer Alban Berg (1885-1935), the story of an amoral woman, was left unfinished after the composer’s death, until Austria’s Frierich Cerha completed Act 3 in 1973. The Japanese premiere of the opera was performed by Deutsche Oper Berlin as an incomplete two-act version at the Nissay Theatre in 1970.

In 2003, on the 40th anniversary, Nissay Theatre presented the three-act version of “Lulu” for the first time in Japan.

“Our full version of ‘Lulu’ was well received,” recalls Yoko Kanehira, a veteran producer in the theater’s planning department. “It was also impressive that the opera was performed entirely by Japanese singers.”

Sponsored by Nissay (Nippon Life Insurance Company), the theater was founded in 1963. It was the idea of Gen Hirose (1904-96), the fifth president of Nissay, to make a theater that could contribute to improving the cultural environment in Japan.

The formal opening was celebrated on Oct. 20, 1963, with Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio” performed by Deutsche Oper Berlin — the first occasion on which a full foreign opera house visited Japan, bringing not only the main cast, but also singers, choir, orchestra, props and staff.

Since that first raising of the curtain, the theater has featured various performing arts, including opera, plays, musicals, kabuki and family programs during the summer vacation.

A number of leading figures in Japanese theater, including directors Keita Asari and Yukio Ninagawa, as well as opera director Keisuke Suzuki, gained experience at this theater in the early stages of their career.

Near the Imperial Palace and next to the Imperial Hotel, the Nippon Life Insurance Company Hibiya Building that houses the theater was designed by renowned Japanese architect Togo Murano (1891-1984) and continues to be one of the most acclaimed buildings of the Showa Era (1926-89).

The outside walls are adorned in rosy pink granite, and from the entrance hall that features Grecian-style columns, a red carpet leads to the first and second floors.

“There are no straight lines,” explains Kanehira, showing me the inside of the theater. The walls and ceilings are formed from curved surfaces winding over 1,330 seats like an organic dome. The walls are covered with multicolor glass mosaics, while some 20,000 pearl oyster shells are attached to the ceiling’s plaster, re-creating a feeling of being under the sea.

At the time of the theater’s establishment, it was not common in Japanese society to spend a company’s profit on culture for the public, so Nissay Theatre was often criticized for being too luxurious. However, in “Nissei Gekijo no Sanju-nen” (“30 Years of Nissay Theatre,” 1994), the book commemorating its 30th anniversary, Hirose recalls how he responded to such criticism at the time.

“I did not mean this theater to be only for audiences from the upper class,” he wrote. “I wanted ordinary young people to make use of it. I believe that it is important for the youth to elevate their minds through high-quality performing arts. It should also be good for Japan’s future.”

Hirose’s vision was realized through “Nissay Masterpiece Theatre,” a program that offers free invitations for elementary-school students aged 11 and 12 to musicals produced and performed by Shiki Theatre Company, such as “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and “Lottie and Lisa.” Since the program began in 1964, more than 7 million children have visited the theater.

Among various performing arts the theater tackles, opera has been one of the most important genres since its opening with Deutsche Oper Berlin in 1963. This was followed by the opera house’s second (1966) and third (1970) tours of Japan, which included several Japanese premieres, such as Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” and “Tristan and Isolde,” and Berg’s “Wozzek.”

In 1966, Nissay Theatre started producing opera, mainly by Mozart as well as other famous pieces, with Japanese singers and staff. And since the 1980s, the “Nissay Opera Series” has introduced artistically esteemed opera, including German composer Kurt Weill’s “The Threepenny Opera,” by Oper Koln, Germany in 1993; as well as the first performance in Japan of Japanese composer Minoru Miki’s “The Tale of Genji” (2001), which was originally produced by and premiered at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in Missouri in 2000.

“The Makropulos Case” is among such productions that have been rarely performed in Japan. Czech writer Karel Capek’s play of the same title was turned into an opera between 1923 and 1925 by Czech composer Janacek (1854-1928). Set in Prague in 1922, it tells the story of soprano singer Emilia Marty, who has lived for 337 years thanks to a magical recipe. She gets drawn into a lawsuit between her descendants and those of her former lover, who have been fighting over an inheritance for almost 100 years. The opera will explore the heroine’s long, mysterious life, while offering powerful music colored with both folkloric and contemporary styles.

“We have already experienced Janacek’s wonderful music when we performed ‘The Cunning Little Vixen’ in 2006,” says Niwa.

In collaboration with the Tokyo Nikikai opera troupe, internationally active singers have been assembled for the production: Emilia Marty will be performed by Yumi Koyama (Nov. 20, 24) and Ranko Kurano (Nov. 22). Also featured are tenors Robert Kunzli and Satoru Omachi, and mezzo sopranos Michiko Hayashi and Shinobu Hasegawa. Direction is commissioned to the veteran Keisuke Suzuki, who has been working for Nissay Theatre since its opening. The New Japan Philharmonic, who will collaborate with the Nikikai singers, will be conducted by young Austrian music director Christian Arming, who has served at the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra in the Czech Republic for six years.

“Janacek’s opera is like a play. In Makropulos, there are no arias; all the songs are made up of dialog. A heroine aged over 300 keeping her youth and beauty! It’s ideal for women, isn’t it?” says Niwa. “Life and death have been universal questions. Janacek’s opera leaves these questions open to the audience today.”

“The Makropulos Case” will be performed on Nov. 20 (7 p.m.) and 22, 24 (2 p.m.) at Nissay Theatre in Yurakucho, Tokyo. Tickets are ¥5,000-¥16,000. Call (03) 3503-3111 or visit www.nissaytheatre.or.jp