The late classical composer Teizo Matsumura, American film director Martin Scorsese, and playwright/director Keiko Miyata may seem an unlikely trio, but they share a reverence for “Silence,” the 1966 novel by Shusaku Endo.
Matsumura (1929-2007) spent more than 13 years composing an opera based on the novel, and Scorsese will direct a film version later this year. For Miyata, “Silence” will marry her personal and artistic interests as she directs her first opera for the New National Theatre, Tokyo (NNTT) — a new production of Matsumura’s “Silence.”
“When Shusako Endo was still alive, members of the theatrical company I was working with produced some of his works, but unfortunately I was not directly involved in the stagings,” Miyata tells The Japan Times. She is currently artistic director in the play division at NNTT, but she started her career at the Seinenza Theater Company as a writer/director in 1980. “Either because reading the novel ‘Silence’ had such a big effect on me, or because I harbored a fascination for Japan’s traditional resistance toward foreign cultures, I ended up reading all of Endo’s works based on this time period when Christianity was persecuted in Japan.”
When artistic director Tadaaki Otaka approached Miyata in 2010 about directing an opera, she initially laughed at the “dangerous bet” he was proposing. When he mentioned that the opera would be “Silence,” Miyata says her feelings immediately changed.
“The doubts I had were pushed aside by a new curiosity. Of course, I simply loved the book, but ‘Silence’ also matches a theme I created last year for NNTT titled, ‘Japan Meets.’ The theme examines the ‘lineage of contemporary drama,’ and how Japanese drama has evolved with the influence of the world’s best literature. In fact, when creating this theme I thought of ‘Silence’ and Endo’s other works. So, Otaka’s proposal felt like a direct hit to my heart.”
Miyata is not alone in her persistent admiration of “Silence”; Scorsese first became interested in the novel when he was reportedly given a copy after the premiere of his 1988 film, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” As he recounts in a foreword for a recent reprint of “Silence”: “I picked up this novel for the first time almost 20 years ago. I’ve reread it countless times since, and I am preparing to adapt it as a film. It has given me a kind of sustenance that I have found in only a very few works of art.”
Miyata says the story is easily adaptable to suit a modern audience.
“Thinking broadly, we are still on an extended line that lasts from 1868, when Japan opened itself after the Meiji Restoration and foreign customs came pouring in. Today with the Internet, it may seem like countries have lost their uniqueness. Yet it is because they have lost their former selves that each country can combine both the openness of the world with their own characteristics.
“We must not only accept the knowledge we have from the Internet, but also use it to draw people of different cultures together and learn to acknowledge different people. I think this is a very large theme evident in the work. Therefore, I think ‘Silence’ is an opera that contains an important historical event that — although distant — connects old Japan to modern Japan.”
Readers felt the connection even before the Internet age. The novel was a bestseller when it was first published and it won the Tanizaki Prize for Best Literature in the same year.
Endo, a baptized Catholic since elementary school, drew from his own experiences as a minority Christian struggling to find acceptance in predominately Shinto/Buddhist Japan. He further encountered discrimination in France, when he studied French-Catholic authors at the University of Lyon in the 1950s; even his faith could not open the doors his Asian heritage slammed shut. Endo later discovered the historical seed for the novel while researching the kakure kirishitan (hidden Christians) in Nagasaki.
After the 1637-38 Shimabara Rebellion during the Edo Period (1603-1867), foreign priests and their Japanese congregations faced increasingly brutal persecution. Endo was particularly captivated by historical records relating the apostasy of Portuguese Jesuit Cristovao Ferreira (c. 1580-1650). Not only did Ferreira renounce his faith under torture, a first among the captured Christians and an unbelievable action to a Catholic community that glorified martyrdom, he later worked closely with the Japanese government to purge all Catholics from Japan. Ferreira even wrote a book in Japanese, “The Deception Revealed,” denouncing Christianity. Endo added to “Silence” the character of Sebastian Rodrigues, a Portuguese missionary based on several historical figures, who comes to Japan both to spread the faith and to search for Ferreira, his fallen mentor.
A bestseller since its initial print, “Silence” was translated into English three years later in 1969. Controversy followed as various Christian groups around the world protested the novel’s ambiguous depictions of missionary work, faith, and the priesthood. Endo himself was dissatisfied with parts of the English translation and a film version by Shinoda Masahiro in 1971 added an extra scene, unapproved by the author.
As an opera, “Silence” opened in 1993 at Tokyo’s Nissay Theatre without those controversies. Endo even appeared from the audience to take a bow with Matsumura. NNTT staged the opera once in 2000 and this new production will provide Miyata the chance to unite her vision with Matsumura’s.
“Directors in plays do similar work to composers in operas,” Miyata says. “Choosing the tone and the rhythm of the play is the director’s job, just as Matsumura did with his opera. He both wrote the script and composed the music; he even wrote down notes on how he would like the actors and actresses to read the lines, and what emotions should be taking place in the music. Although I had my own thoughts on how to produce ‘Silence,’ I also knew how Matsumura felt by the things he wrote in the score. I needed to read his thoughts and emotions from the music and incorporate them into this production.”
Most critics consider “Silence” Matsumura’s masterpiece. In 1978, he won the Suntory Music Award and received a commission to compose the opera. A professor emeritus of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music and an accomplished haiku poet, Matsumura’s libretto, sung in Japanese, dramatizes the action of the novel into two acts. For the new production, Tatsuya Shimono will conduct the orchestra, and the lead role of Rodrigues (Rodrigo in Japan) will be shared between two prominent Japanese tenors, Tetsuo Komochiya and Keiroh Ohara.
“In general, the role a tenor sings in an opera is beautiful; despite adversary and conflict, the characters remain true to their ideals until death, and something beautiful remains,” Komochiya says. “Rodrigo is an exception. With this character, there is a part that is not beautiful. This next time will be my seventh time playing him and each time I share and feel his pain. I am looking forward to singing now with Miyata’s interpretation, moving this role to the next level.”
Although Miyata’s production will feature an all-Japanese cast, she hopes a multicultural staging will some day become a reality: “Listening to Matsumura’s Japanese flowing through the score, ‘Silence’ is an opera where you can let yourself go in the music,” Miyata says. “But in watching the opera, I hope the audience will be able to see what religion means to one person and what it means to truly accept other cultures.”
Translation by Zen Sugino
“Silence” runs at the New National Theatre, Tokyo’s Opera Playhouse in Shibuya-ku from Feb. 15-19. Tickets range in price from ¥3,150- ¥15,750. For more information, call (03) 5352-9999 or visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp.