NNTT reprises hit ‘Rokumeikan’ opera based on Mishima play

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Midway through the second act of the opera “Rokumeikan,” Countess Asako, the wife of Count Kageyama, the conservative government leader, turns to her former lover Einosuke Kiyohara, who heads the progressive opposition party, and emotes in song: “No, we do not talk of politics; it is of love we speak.”

Despite the noble lady’s words, the opera lays bare both — yet neither — and in this conundrum lies the essence of a masterpiece, according to Hitoshi Uyama, who is directing the production being staged at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, from June 19-22.

Uyama, who also wrote the libretto based on Yukio Mishima’s play of the same name, explained during our recent interview: “There are many tangled conflicts in the opera, but confrontations are necessary for our human vitality. The precarious balance between the two becomes infused with a kind of Shakespearean dramatic power.

“If we think about the major themes in the work — Japanese traditions versus modern Western influence, or politics set against a personal dream, or men versus women — such confrontations can never be resolved. But to come face to face with that kind of contradiction, that is the essence of the work.”

Commissioned by the New National Theatre, Tokyo, as part of a drive to create original Japanese opera, the work — with music by Shinichiro Ikebe — premiered there in 2010 with a critically acclaimed sold-out run.

For this, Uyama modestly credited the composer, saying: “The words of Mishima’s play already resonated with a kind of music. Ikebe must have had a difficult time creating music on top of the musical words and have it not be redundant. He achieved a delicate outcome.”

Balancing Asian and Western harmonies, at turns lively and inspirational, the score echoes the clash of cultures found in 1886, less than 20 years after the centuries-old military Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown and Emperor Meiji became head of state.

The opera, conducted by Norichika Iimori, opens on the emperor’s birthday, when Count Kageyama will host a ball at the glitzy Rokumeikan Hall in Tokyo. Historically, the Rokumeikan was a place for elaborate Western spectacle; menus were in French, Japanese couples danced the quadrille and sported the latest European fashions. A focus of controversy over this “betrayal” of traditional values, the building was sold after seven years and left to sink into dereliction after suffering extensive damage in an 1894 earthquake.

Asako, sung in different performances by Yurie Okura and Mami Koshigoe, faces a momentous decision when she learns that her grown-up illegitimate child with Kiyohara, sung by Jun Hoshino and Masumitsu Miyamoto, plans to assassinate his father at the ball. Meanwhile, her husband, Kageyama, who is inextricably bound to the intrigue in both love and politics, is sung masterfully by Hiroshi Kuroda and Kei Yonashiro.

As soprano Okura explained, “The opera centers around one day, but it is really Asako’s entire past and future merged. Her heart becomes moved to confront her past and make a choice on how she should live.

“When I performed for the premiere, I could only think of singing this long opera to the end. Luckily now I can stand face to face with Asako’s complicated character and use all my experience to best express the role.”

Baritone Hiroshi Kuroda also appreciates reprising his role as Kageyama, noting that, “Since 2010, I have read more deeply about Mishima, and how meaningfully layered his work is; while I myself have matured more and that comes through in my voice.” He now believes Kageyama is “a rather simple man, but someone with absolute authority over himself and others.”

The gorgeous sets by Jiro Shima contrast the bright-yellow chrysanthemum of Imperial Japan against a minimalist backdrop — as if reflecting Uyama’s observation that, “The gap between ideals and reality is deep, so the way we live every day is important. The possibility to create new meaning, to be influential by means of expression — that purpose has become stronger since the premiere because of the (March 2011) earthquake, because of the way Japan is now — even because of my own advancing age.”

And finally he noted in relation to the work’s contradictions, “I think this opera ends with optimism, because a fundamental confrontation has occurred and some communication has been realized. In this there is great courage. Perhaps it will be useful for the next generation.”

“Rokumeikan” runs June 19-22 at the New National Theatre Playhouse in Tokyo. For details, call 03-5352-9999 or visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp.