Seiji Ozawa takes to the stage for Mozart opera

by Chiho Iuchi

Staff Writer

It is certainly good to see Maestro Seiji Ozawa back at the podium again.

Japan’s most celebrated conductor made a triumphant return to the Saito Kinen Festival last summer after having taken two years off due to bad health. He took a rest after that appearance, but resurfaced in January to perform with the Mito Chamber Orchestra.

In March, the maestro focused on the Seiji Ozawa Music Academy, which he founded in 2000 with the aim of nurturing young musicians through opera. Every year, students learn from Ozawa and other top professionals, later implementing what they learned in an operatic production. This year’s opera was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” which was performed at Yokosuka Arts Theater in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, Aichi Prefectural Art Theater in Nagoya and Biwako Hall in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, before wrapping up at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan on March 26.

The Tokyo performance was all about collaboration. In the past, if Ozawa felt ill, then he would be replaced by a substitute conductor at the last minute. This time, the maestro shared his baton with American conductor Ted Taylor, who also played the cembalo. Their collaboration allowed Ozawa to conduct the most important parts of the opera, which included the famous overture, the major arias, choirs and the finale. As “The Marriage of Figaro” is more than three hours, this allowed Ozawa to work within his physical limitations.

Another remarkable feature of the performance was the way it was presented, a style that an Italian newspaper referred to as “opera dramatico” in 1984.

The opera dramatico style had orchestra members seated on the stage — not in the orchestra pit — and the singers performed on an even higher stage that was situated behind the orchestra.

“I hadn’t realized that I had created such a strong form of presentation, but it seems the Italians liked the dramatic, right-in-your-face quality of the work,” director David Kneuss, a frequent Ozawa collaborator, told a press conference last December.

This style of presentation was first created in 1980, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra (then led by Ozawa who was musical director) performed Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Tosca” during the Tanglewood Music Festival.

This approach allowed the audience to see Ozawa conducting the pieces, something usually hidden from view in the pit. The result was delightful. Not only was the audience able to see how each instrument was involved in telling the story on stage, the orchestra members were seated much closer to the singers, enabling some communication.

The stage vividly recreated the days of Mozart. The Ozawa Music Academy Orchestra members, who studied in collaboration with the international singers and under the guidance of Ozawa, gave a fresh, devoted performance that built toward a brilliantly executed finale.

With the Ozawa academy’s opera project now behind him, the maestro is scheduled to perform at a special concert with the New Japan Philharmonic next month. He will share the baton with Japanese conductor Naohiro Totsuka at that performance. Ozawa will appear during the latter part of that show to conduct Béla Bartók’s divertimento for string orchestra and Ludwig van Beethoven’s overture “Leonore No. 3,” another demonstration of a collaborative approach that should benefit everyone.

New Japan Philharmonic Special Concert, conducted by Seiji Ozawa and Naohiro Totsuka, takes place at Sumida Triphony Hall in Tokyo on May 8 (7 p.m. start; ¥10,000-¥15,000). For more information, call 03-5610-3815 or visit www.njp.or.jp.