High-energy Ono conducts a rare ‘Hoffmann’ critique

by Ayako Takahashi

Special To The Japan Times

He is known best for the rapturously hysterical “Infernal Gallop” (aka “The Can-can”) from his 1858 operetta “Orpheus in the Underworld,” but the German-born, naturalized-French composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-80) is credited with just one full-length, serious opera — “The Tales of Hoffmann” — which opens for a short Tokyo season this weekend.

The protagonist of this piece is based on the German Romantic author of fantasy and horror, E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), and the opera’s themes of a poet’s unrequited love and the redemption of his soul are taken from three of his novels.

For the opera’s upcoming edition in Japan, France’s L’Opera National de Lyon will perform under the baton of Tokyo-born Kazushi Ono, who was music director of Le Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels from 2002 before moving to Lyon in 2008.

Though very active internationally, and extremely busy, Ono, 54 — who was principal conductor of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra from 1992-99 (and is still Conductor Laureate there) — made time recently for a telephone interview with The Japan Times, which I began by asking where he thinks the appeal of Offenbach’s music lies.

In response, Ono first pointed out that, “Offenbach is known as a composer of operettas, and some affix a question mark when speaking of his artistry — but, for example, the sound of marching military boots in his 1869 operetta ‘Les Brigands’ foretold the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and in ‘Orphee aux Enfers’ (‘Orpheus in the Underworld’) he uses a Greek legend to cleverly poke fun at the snobby attitudes of the (1852-70) Second Empire under Napoleon III.”

Ono’s admiration of this astonishingly prolific composer then became quite clear when he continued, “It takes a certain sense to make a comedic work that is true to human nature, and from a social-observation perspective, his work has an almost journalistic side.

“Additionally, he has an expressive quality characteristic of Jewish composers, and hence ‘Les contes d’Hoffmann’ (‘The Tales of Hoffmann’) is imbued with a disconsolate wistfulness bordering on nostalgia, as it expresses the ephemeral and aesthetic mood of fin-de-siecle Europe.”

In “Les contes d’Hoffmann,” the central character fails in love with three different women — a tale that owes more to fact than fiction, as Ono noted.

“E.T.A. Hoffmann was a writer and a poet as well as a judge, so he had many faces. But when it came to romance, he was too full of fantasies, and he was the kind of person who would always wind up with broken dreams.

“For his part, Offenbach always wished to stage an opera at L’Opera in Paris, but he never could. He was the kind of person who was always suffering in the gap between dreams and reality.

“This opera’s Hoffmann, too, chases his dreams but then returns to reality — repeatedly experiencing unspeakable loneliness — but he still keeps on dreaming. In that way, I feel both (E.T.A.) Hoffmann’s and Offenbach’s sentiments reside in this work.”

Although this opera is often performed in its four-act form, Tokyo audiences will be treated to the greatly revised and highly acclaimed modern five-act version published by the, respectively, American and French musicologists Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck — with France’s sought-after director of opera and theater, Laurent Pelly, at the helm.

Commenting on Pelly’s direction, Ono said: “In this production, he doesn’t aim for visual splendor; he effectively appeals to the psychology of the audience. The set has a lot of black spaces, but in these shadowy voids we sense both lost love and the unseen exaltation of love.

“Musically, this being the five-act version is important. Offenbach died before he completed the score, so many scholars and musicians have made revisions to his opera — and have made a big mess. However, the composer left behind a structure in his piano score, with first a prolog, then three acts, then an epilog. This is evidence that he wanted to take this work to L’Opéra de Paris, as in those days five-act grand operas were only performed there. For this version, there is an angels’ chorus at the end imported from a different work.”

Ono also noted how (tenor) Hoffmann’s friend Nicklausse (mezzo-soprano) reveals himself to be the Muse, sent from God, who declares to the broken and dying Hoffmann: “Moi, la fidèle amie. Dont la main essuya tes yeux … par qui ta douleur endormie s’exhale en rêve dans les cieux.” (“It’s me, the faithful friend whose hand wiped your eyes … by which your sleeping pain flies away in dream into heaven.”)

“This is similar,” Ono explained, “to the ending of Goethe’s tragic play ‘Faust’ — ‘Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan.’ (‘The Eternal Feminine draws us upward.’) — which gives a sense of Europe’s history of complex relationships between God and man’s ego.”

However, as classical music itself could be said to be a kind of European spiritual product, it seemed appropriate to ask Ono if he’d found it difficult to approach it as a Japanese person.

“Without even going into how the French composer (Claude) Debussy (1862-1918) was influenced by Hokusai’s woodcut-print series, ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,’ or how he began (his symphonic sketch) ‘La Mer’ with a very Japanese pentatonic scale — or even without referring to (the major 20th-century French composer) Olivier Messiaen (1908-92), who studied Buddhist music — I don’t think classical music has been entirely occidental for more than 100 years.”

Then, drawing a gastronomic analogy, Ono continued, “Recently, Japanese cuisine was awarded cultural-heritage status by UNESCO, and two directions are at work there. One is to develop something good about Japan alone; another is to be accepted by other countries and grow. So I think it’s not necessary or valid to say that what emerges in other countries is not Japanese cuisine, because it’s the mission of culture to encounter other cultures and change its shape.

“Currently, there are Japanese chefs conquering the French-cuisine world in Lyon, and the syntax of Japanese composers is becoming a subject of research around the world.”

Even so, I put it to the conductor that French music is a valuable repertoire for French people — to which Ono replied: “For them, works like ‘Carmen’ and ‘Les contes d’Hoffmann’ are similar to how ‘Kanadehon Chushingura’ is for kabuki. Hence it takes a strong resolution to perform it in front of French people, and I always tell myself that I have to keep working at it.

“But the conductors and singers are often not French, and I feel that the world of classical music is well-developed in terms of generosity, and that makes me feel happy.”

Would he also be happy next April, when he takes up the post of music director of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra on a five-year contract, I asked — especially as, in September 2015, he is also set to become music director at the Barcelona Symphony and Catalonia National Orchestra.

“Actually, I’ll also continue for a while as the principal conductor in Lyon, so I’ll have three positions,” Ono said with no trace of concern in his voice over the workload he faces. On the contrary, he continued, “I am thinking I’d like to sit down in each place and do outreach with local people and children, making audio and video recordings, and doing other grassroots activities with them.”

Now, that’s energy!

L’Opera National de Lyon’s “Les contes d’Hoffmann,” conducted by Ono Kazushi, runs July 5-9 at Bunkamura’s Orchard Hall in Shibuya, Tokyo. For details, call 03-3477-3244 or visit www.bunkamura.co.jp. This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.