The bell tolls on Demon Pond

New National Theatre, Tokyo, presents a new Japanese opera with a century-old warning

by Chiho Iuchi

Staff Writer

The sound of the temple bell of “Yashagaike (Demon Pond)” will ring for the first time at the New National Theatre, Tokyo (NNTT) — but it’s the bell’s silence that will reverberate for the characters of this new Japanese-language opera.

The story of “Yashagaike” was first told in a play by Japanese author Kyoka Izumi (1873-1939) in 1913. “It is the story of a bell … and a warning from Kyoka,” says Tatsuji Iwata, the opera’s director. He believes the author meant “Yashagaike” to be a cautionary tale against a wane in generosity and in the traditional sense of respect toward nature amid Japan’s increasing militarization and materialism a century ago. “I think Kyoka’s warning is still appropriate today,” Iwata adds.

“It is a good piece of entertainment,” says Rick Broadaway, an American professor of English at Kanazawa Gakuin University. “Romance, fantastic legends, monsters, a crazy sadistic mob, a love-sick dragon trapped in a pond, a double suicide — and at the end, an apocalyptic flood. Who could ask for more in a story?”

Broadaway translated “Yashagaike” into English, and in collaboration with professor Kinpei Ohara, the result was published as “Demon Lake” in 2006.

The story is set in the same period as Kyoka lived, in a valley near Mount Mikunigatake in Echizen (which is now Fukui Prefecture). There is a legend that says a Dragon God is imprisoned within the pond as a way to protect the surrounding villages from destructive floods. A nearby temple rings its bell three times a day as part of a pact with the god, to prevent these floods from occurring.

During a drought long ago, a young woman named Shirayuki was offered as a sacrifice to Demon Pond in exchange for rain. Shirayuki then became princess of the pond. She fell in love with the young master of another pond, but was warned that as long as the bell tolls, she could not leave Demon Pond — or else the village would be flooded.

Centuries later, a man named Akira from Tokyo arrives in the village and takes over the duty of ringing the temple bell. He soon marries a local woman named Yuri. His friend, Gakuen, comes looking for him around the same time another drought occurs. The villagers seek Yuri for a new sacrifice. She commits suicide to try to save her husband from the enraged mob, but the grief-stricken Akira has his throat cut. Without Akira to ring the temple bell, Princess Shirayuki is released and the floodwaters rise.

While looking for a subject to become the basis of an opera, composer Osamu Katsuki was inspired by the story of “Yashagaike.”

“It was more than 35 years ago,” he says. “My first impulse was that this piece would be a good opera because of its dramatic development and sheer variety of characters.” Katsuki nurtured the project in his mind from then.

The composer’s lifelong vision started to become reality when his former classmate Tadaaki Otaka, who is artistic director of opera at the NNTT commissioned him to write a new piece.

Kyoka’s theater pieces have not been performed very often as they are thought to be too difficult to stage, according to director Iwata.

“It is not easy to express Kyoka’s large-scale scenes of destruction on the stage,” he says. “Neither is it easy to realistically perform the fantastic monsters, which take the shapes of beautiful women. You need a distinguished female kabuki actor, such as Bando Tamasaburo. He successfully performed Yuri and Shirayuki in the film version of ‘Yashagaike’ (1979).

“However, I believe that opera singers, to whom I refer as ‘vocal athletes,’ should be able to perform extraterrestrial existence, and we should be able to express the final scene of the destructive flood with our modern stage technology — without using real water.”

Katsuki and Iwata collaborated in adapting a libretto based on Kyoka’s original script in order to make it more suitable to opera. They kept the dialogue as close to the original as possible, but added elements as well. For example, the play contains a long speech by Akira that explains the history of Demon Pond. For the opera, however, a visual interpretation of that speech has been created and includes scenes of monsters acted out by contemporary dancers (choreographed by Yutaka Koga) and accompanied by an off-stage choir. Shirayuki’s melismatic soprano tones penetrate above it all.

Another new element in the opera is the addition of children and their songs. “It was Katsuki’s idea, but they are not just happy and innocent,” Iwata says. “They rudely sing to Yuri asking if she is really a snake personified with scales on her back, which is rumored among the villagers.”

In other scenes, they represent “the children who died, or who were never born,” according to Iwata, who adds that children are often the first to fall victim to human conflicts and natural disasters.

The opera isn’t all serious, though: A bit of comic relief features a carp named Koishichi, a crab named Kanigoro and a catfish named Nennyu — who give humorous performances that are similar to Ping, Pang and Pong from Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Turandot.”

When Otaka commissioned Katsuki to create a new Japanese opera, his main concept was an opera with songs that everyone can sing along to.

“I agree with his idea,” Katsuki says. “It’s true that opera is theater, but I believe that primarily it needs music and songs to distinguish it as an opera.”

Katsuki has created a number of songs based on Japanese poems. He says that he was much inspired by French Impressionist composers, such as Claude Debussy (1862-1918), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and Gabriel Faure (1845-1924), who sought new sounds using discordance and medieval Gregorian scales.

“I find these sounds have something in common with Japanese traditional music,” Katsuki says, even though he says he composes without being particularly conscious that he is Japanese. “When I studied composition, there was a general atmosphere that we should create contemporary music with atonalism. I think it’s the same even today. I have always felt conflicted between this kind of artistic climate and what I really want to create. In a sense, it requires more courage to compose a harmonious and melodic piece that might sound ‘cheap’ to the audience. Either way, contemporary or not, the objective is whether I can touch the right chord for my audience.”

One of the standout songs in “Yashagaike” is a lullaby that Katsuki composed more than 15 years ago — with the opera still only an idea in his head.

“The lullaby expresses emotions for each scene including solitude, affection for a baby and love for all living creatures,” says soprano Hiroko Koda, who sings the lullaby as Yuri, holding a baby doll as a substitute for the real baby she could never have. As the song appears again and again, the melancholic melody is bound to be etched in the audience’s memory.

The opera will be performed by an alternating cast, including soprano Ryoko Sunakawa, who also plays Yuri; sopranos Takako Okazaki and Mami Koshigoe in the role of Shirayuki; tenors Tetsuya Mochizuki and Satoshi Nishimura as Akira; and baritones Hiroshi Kuroda and Masumitsu Miyamoto as Akira’s friend Gakuen. The Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Japanese conductor Naohiro Totsuka has been brought in to provide the music.

Professor Broadaway points out that Kyoka believed in the power of words to bring a story to life.

“Kyoka believed in the stories, especially the ones that come to us from deep in our past,” he says. “The lone survivor of the flood, Gakuen, looks reverently at the lake, because he knows that, in the end, it is only the story that remains.”

“Yashagaike” (“Demon Pond”) will be performed at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, on June 25 and 26 at 6:30 p.m., and from June 28 to 30 at 2 p.m. Tickets cost between ¥1,500 and ¥15,750. For more information, call 03-5352-9999 or visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp.