Showing me a sketch of the set of Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni,” executive producer Keiko Manabe, who has led Suntory Hall’s opera projects since 1989, explains the new production’s concept.
“Suntory Hall looks as if it is in ruins. Isn’t it interesting?” declares Manabe, who, in Berlin in 1983, helped involve renowned conductor Herbert von Karajan (1908-89) in the construction of Suntory Hall.
With advice from von Karajan, the hall utilizes a Berliner Philharmoniker-style “vineyard configuration,” in which the seats surround the stage, to create the outstanding acoustics.
Manabe visited Germany as a student in the 1970s, but the holiday became more permanent. Half her time has been spent in Germany since then, and until recently, she studied musicology. Simultaneously, she worked as a music journalist, interviewing great maestros such as von Karajan, Karl Bohm and Wolfgang Sawallisch, with whom she formed lasting friendships.
As part of “Mozart & Da Ponte 2008-2010,” a series that features Mozart’s three operas with Italian libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, Suntory Hall staged “The Marriage of Figaro” succefully in 2008, under the baton of Italy’s Nicola Luisotti and the direction of his countryman Gabriele Lavia.
What is the attraction of Hall Opera, Suntory Hall’s original style of opera performance?
It is a sense of unity with the performers. At typical opera houses, the stage is separated from the audience by an orchestra pit, and the gap is so far. At Suntory Hall, the stage is fully surrounded by the audience. There is no pit; the orchestra is on stage and the singers perform very close to you.
The orchestra members can learn the breathing, phrasing and meaning of the scene from the singers who perform next to them, which drastically changes the quality of their performance.
As for the singers, I was afraid that they may feel too close to the audience, but I was glad to hear that, at an interview, Japanese soprano Tomoko Masuda said she had never had such a wonderful experience; that she could feel the sympathy of the audience with her whole body and sing as if riding on their emotional energy.
Please tell me about Nicola Luisotti, the maestro of “Mozart & Da Ponte 2008-2010.”
I first invited Nicola Luisotti to conduct Puccini’s “Tosca” in 2004. His talents made me decide to produce operas by Mozart, my great idol, whose works I’d never had the courage to tackle. To perform the three great operas by Mozart and Da Ponte, I have three requirements: performers who are able to sing in perfect Italian; an Italian director who understands the meaning behind the libretto; and a maestro who also plays harpsichord while conducting, as Mozart himself did in his time. I was fascinated by Luisotti’s improvisation on the harpsichord in response to the feelings of the characters.
How about the director, Gabriele Lavia?
Gabriele Lavia is a great actor and director, whom everybody knows in Italy. Luisotti said, “It has been a dream since my childhood to work together with Lavia someday.” I wondered if such a big name would join us, but fortunately he liked the Japanese noh-theory book “Kadensho” by 15th-century noh actor and aesthetician Zeami Motokiyo, and decided to make his first visit to Japan in 2008.
Why do you often appoint young singers for lead roles?
“Don Giovanni” was performed by young singers in Mozart’s day. One reason we do the same is our limited budget! (Laughs.) But a more important reason is to introduce emerging talents to Japan. This is my role.
How do you distinguish talented performers?
My tea-ceremony master used to say, “Always look at good things, then you will easily distinguish bad things.” I always attended rehearsals and recordings under von Karajan, and rehearsals under Sawallisch as well. I went to the opera five times a week in my days in Munich. I really listened to “good things.” This is my strongest skill.
How did you decide the casting of “Don Giovanni”?
I discussed it with maestro Luisotti. The title role will be performed by Austrian baritone Marcus Werba, who joined “The Marriage of Figaro” in 2008 on my recommendation. This year, it was the strong recommendation of both maestro Luisotti and director Lavia, who were attracted by his voice. Other cast members, such as Macedonian tenor Blagoj Nacoski, Italian baritone Marco Vinco and Bulgarian bass Deyan Vatchkov, are also selected from the rising stars of the younger generation.
What is the highlight of this new production of “Don Giovanni”?
Director Lavia will present the collapse of society, as envisaged by Mozart. Lavia thinks it is important to recognize where we are now. Where are we while attending this opera? So Lavia’s chose a stage set that depicts a ruined Suntory Hall.
Many people think of opera as old fashioned, particularly 18th-century works such as “Don Giovanni.” What is your opinion?
Mozart’s music is universal. It was full of ideas that were ahead of their time. “God is dead,” thinks Don Giovanni, who commits acts of immorality and violence. It was 100 years earlier than German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche made the same claim in his writing. Mozart’s operas have been and will be performed again and again and give us new meanings every time. It is not at all old fashioned, but still alive and deeply embedded into people’s hearts.
Hall Opera “Don Giovanni” takes place at Suntory Hall in Akasaka, Tokyo, on April 5, 8 and 11 (4 p.m. on April 5 and 11; 6:30 p.m. on April 8; ¥15,000-27,000). For more information, call  3584-9999 or visit suntory.jp/HALL/)