Noh meets opera in a blend of high cultures

by Bronwyn Mahoney

Special To The Japan Times

Bringing together the codified and traditional worlds of Japanese noh theater and European opera seems impossible. Such ostensibly different histories, sounds and visuals: How could it work?

It’s a challenge that Vienna-based Japanese opera director Shugo Ikoh has been playing around with for some time — the fruits of which he debuted in Tokyo in 2011.

And late last month, at the Maison du Culture du Japon’s theater in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, he premiered his mélanges in Europe. The first tranche saw kyōgen (traditional Japanese comic theater) mixed with commedia delle’arte in a production of the “Livietta e Tracallo” intermezzi for three singers by Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-36).

While wonderfully staged, and indeed funny, this love story seemed familiar. All three performers were convincing, but there was something of the costume-play about it.

In the second half, though, the audience was treated to the more intricate mix of noh with a miniature tragi-opera titled “Actéon” by the French baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704). The result was entirely captivating.

In conversation, Ikoh told this writer that finding an Italian piece was easy, though it had taken him some time to come across one that would work with the constraints of noh — where ghosts, goddesses and humans share the stage.

Then along came the pastorale “Actéon,” which presented itself as the perfect solution, since it tells the story of the eponymous hunter and his demise at the hands of Juno, the chief Roman goddess, and Diana — the Roman goddess of the moon, birthing and the hunt — after they punish him, for accidentally seeing the latter bathing, by turning him into a stag that is then ripped to pieces by his own hounds.

After the performers entered the stage, the humans and animals across a small bridge as if from another dimension, and the goddesses and chorus from the right, yet another realm, one audience member told me how she was mesmerized by the costumes — “especially Juno’s with a bird perched in the headdress — the slow careful movements across the wooden stage, even the sound of the performer’s feet sliding was thoroughly enjoyable.”

The intimacy of the small theater is integral to the piece, Ikoh explained. Because in noh theater every movement is important, “If the theater is too big, the most essential part of this production would be lost.” From the back of the performance in Paris he watched, pleased to note the concentration the audience gave to the pieces.

The quintet to the left of the stage brought the music to life, such that, as Ikoh observed, “If you closed your eyes, you were listening to an opera; with them open you were watching noh theater.”

The only traditional music was Satoshi Tsukitaku’s playing of a noh flute, which Ikoh explained he chose for the scene where Actéon is transformed into a stag because “he cannot speak anymore as a human but he still has the heart of a human being — that’s why he suffers so much. So the voice, the tone of the noh flute represents the voice of Actéon — but it’s not a human voice, it’s the voice of the stag. I wanted to make this scene more understandable by using the interaction between the quintet and the flute.”

Traditionally, noh performers rehearse only once — a practice termed ichi-go ichi-e (meet just once, then say goodbye) — while an opera’s rehearsals may take up to six weeks. When the flutist came to rehearse “Actéon,” he spoke through, as noh performers do, what would happen — and then prepared to leave. He was surprised to have to play the music.

Consequently, to arrive at their goal, the two cultural groups of performance artists had to move a little toward each other to find an equilibrium.

Similarly, the small noh stage became a balance, giving both worlds their space so that each could be ultimately themselves. This was the director’s aim, he tells me, and in this jewel of a production, it was obvious from the audience’s entranced expressions as they left that he has succeeded.

Now, we can just hope that the worlds align again so more audiences in France and elsewhere can enjoy the experience.