Classical community unites to celebrate bicentennials of Verdi and Wagner

by Chiho Iuchi

Staff Writer

This year marks the bicentennials of the births of two great composers: Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) and Richard Wagner (1813-83), both giants of the classical music world who brought opera to the peak of its artistic expression in the 19th century.

There will be a number of celebrations and events to commemorate the bicentennials in Japan, bundled under the heading of “2013 Verdi & Wagner 200th Anniversary.” They include performances of Verdi’s “Aida,” which started March 11 at the New National Theatre, Tokyo (NNTT), and will continue throughout this month. It is a visually stunning work that recreates the world of Ancient Egypt. “Aida” was also one of the first operas to be performed at the NNTT when it opened and thus also serves as a way to commemorate the theater’s 15th anniversary.

A screening of Wagner’s “Parsifal” will begin April 6 as part of the popular MET Live Viewing series at 16 cinemas across Japan.

Prior to the bicentennial, a kick-off event was held in December at the NNTT in which Tokyo-based brain scientist Kenichiro Mogi attended as a guest speaker.

“I think the opera is symbolic of why Europe developed rapidly in the 19th century,” the 50-year-old Mogi announced to those gathered at the event. It was co-organized by nine major Japanese musical institutions, including opera troupes, orchestras and a music agency, who gave a string of presentations that laid out the goals for the yearlong commemoration. Such coordination doesn’t happen often in the classical music industry, and thus was impressive to see.

“I imagined that there should be some kind of special event for the two great composers in 2013, one that we would want to participate in,” says Yusuke Kataoka, “but nothing specific had been planned.”

Kataoka, 31, has been in charge of promoting the “MET Live Viewing” series, globally broadcast high-definition transmissions of performances by New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which are distributed in Japan by Shochiku, a leading film distributor and production company for kabuki.

“So I called for people from the NNTT and some orchestras to hold some kind of event together,” he adds.

That call turned Kataoka into the catalyst for the joint festivities that have the dual aims of celebrating Verdi and Wagner, and broadening the audience for opera. Mogi, who has made numerous television appearances and is popular on Twitter, was chosen as the “cheerleader” for the event.

Although he is not a music expert, Mogi has written three books on the topic as a classical-music and opera fan.

“Maybe my role is to help the audience perceive opera as interesting by connecting the dots, to borrow Steve Jobs’ phrase,” Mogi tells The Japan Times. “Experts in any genre may have deep knowledge about their own ‘dot,’ but they are not always good at connecting the dots.”

A well-polished presenter, Mogi is one of the few Japanese people to appear on the stage of the TED Talks conferences in the United States, which he did in 2012. His mention of Apple founder Jobs (1955-2011) refers to a quote in which the popular CEO attributed his own successes in life to being able to look back and “connect the dots” of other ideas to see where the future was headed.

“Opera is a composite art,” Mogi says. “Ancient Greek theater and its ideas about music were revived in opera. Opera composers created works by introducing exotic scenery and customs, not only those of Europe, but also from the rest of the world. And Wagner, for example, was eager in adopting the latest ‘technologies’ on his stage. By combining and synthesizing those individual elements of culture, the opera presents a kind of world-view on the stage. I think this is the essence of European culture, which strengthened the European countries in those days.”

After the 1868 Meiji Restoration, Japan modernized rapidly by adapting ideas from the West. While scholars consumed large quantities of books from Europe, opera served — and still serves — to be an efficient package in which to experience the essence of European philosophy presented on a stage within hours, according to Mogi.

“When I was still a poor student, I would go to the opera at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan,” he says. “Eventually, I came to the realization that one key to Japan’s success was likely opera. I wanted to learn from that.”

“Unfortunately, there is a kind of prejudice in Japan that opera is a time killer for the rich, but I think it’s for everybody. I’ve seen young people in jeans and T-shirts at opera houses in European countries.”

Takumi Ueda, a 34-year-old designer who works with Mogi, attended the opening-day performance of “Tannhäuser” at the NNTT on Jan. 23.

“Dr. Mogi took me to the theater,” he says about the experience. “It was my first opera. I had little knowledge about the singers and orchestras, and had only skimmed through the synopsis. When it began, I was immediately fascinated by the drama and the words. I wondered why Tannhäuser broke off his relationship with Venus and returned to the human world. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be OK to stay with Venus?’ I couldn’t take my eyes off the stage.”

Kataoka had also never seen an opera until he was assigned to his current post with the MET Live Viewing three years ago.

“It’s my job to watch the MET Live pieces,” he says. “In the beginning it was a hard time, sometimes I was so sleepy. But after watching about 10 works, there was a moment where I was overwhelmed by the singing abilities of the top-rate performers at the Metropolitan Opera. It gave me goose bumps without my really understanding why, but then I started to understand the joy of opera, which also led me to the theaters in Japan.”

In addition to “Aida” at the NNTT and the MET Live Viewing, various operas and concerts are scheduled within the framework of the Verdi and Wagner bicentennial festivities this year.

Spring Festival in Tokyo: Tokyo Opera Nomori 2013 will present a performance of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” in a concert style on April 4 and 7, featuring German tenor Klaus Florian Vogt as the character of Walther von Stolzing. The festival will also offer a marathon concert, “Wagner and Verdi,” from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on March 23.

Tokyo Nikikai Opera Foundation and The Fujiwara Opera, two major Japanese operatic institutions, will perform Verdi’s “La Traviata” in March and September respectively.

Among the orchestral events, the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra presents “Verdi vs Wagner,” a concert that introduces renowned orchestral pieces from both of the composers’ operas under the baton of Japan’s Taijiro Iimori on May 31.

On March 2, the first joint meeting of the Richard-Wagner-Gesellshaft, Japan and Verdi Society of Japan took place in the foyer of the NNTT, where members from both groups attended a talk event titled “Verdi vs Wagner” by music writer and Verdi specialist Hiroko Kato, and Tokyo Institute of Technology professor and Wagner expert Taro Yamazaki. The pair compared the differences between the two composers and pointed out the emphasis they both put on drama.

It wasn’t a big event, but even within Japan’s small community of opera fans, it was likely the first time that Verdi fans and Wagnerians sat together.

Nothing comes of nothing, but these new connections inside the community could have the potential to create new ideas, a simple connecting of existing dots.

“It’s amazing that we have a national theater for opera in Japan,” Mogi points out. “Can you imagine a national theater for kabuki in foreign countries?”

“Aida” will be presented at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, on March 17, 20, 24, 27 and 30. For more information, call (03) 5352-9999 or visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp. For more information on other events happening during the yearlong commemoration of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner’s births, visit www.facebook.com/2013vw200 (in Japanese).