Opera Theater Konnyakuza perfects a union of stage and song

by

Staff Writer

The world of opera has always found inspiration in the works of William Shakespeare, but adapting them for the stage requires flexibility.

Kyoko Hagi, a composer who serves as the representative of Opera Theater Konnyakuza, points out that Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi transformed “Macbeth” into an opera by cutting a lot of the elements that made the theatrical version so appealing.

“Though the real thrill of seeing Shakespeare is the wordplay and rapid scene changes, these elements are cut in the libretto for the Italian-style grand opera because that format requires the inclusion of arias and choirs,” Hagi says.

Changing the elements of a story while trying to maintain the essence of it in a new form of presentation has been a challenge Konnyakuza has faced since its inception in 1971. On top of the usual obstacles, it must also consider cultural differences. In fact, the troupe was founded on the question: What does opera mean to a Japanese audience?

In those early days (and perhaps still today), the Japanese tended to regard opera as something magnificent, expensive … and often boring and poorly acted.

“In addition to that, it was hard to hear, whether it was being sung in its original language or in Japanese,” Hagi says.

Ever since opera was introduced to Japan during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), training has concentrated on producing singers who are on a par with the professionals in Europe. However, this Western-style vocalism does not suit the Japanese language. As a result, Japanese singers tend to sing in a way that is hard for audiences to hear what is actually being articulated.

Thus, with an eye toward creating and promoting new operatic works sung in Japanese, Konnyakuza began its existence by seeking a method of singing that would allow its audience to clearly comprehend a narrative.

Konnyakuza’s name comes from a “konnyaku exercise club” that the original members were a part of. The club’s exercise routine trains troupe members’ bodies to be soft and flexible, like konnyaku (konjac gel). It lets the performers move more, instead of just standing still while they sing.

With vocals and movement taken care of, the troupe then sought out an audience that wasn’t biased toward opera. It began performing at elementary and junior high schools throughout the country, traveling to them by bus with its own sets and costumes.

One of Konnyakuza’s first works was a 30-minute short opera titled “Amanojaku to Urikohime” (loosely translated as “The Goblin and Princess Melon”), which was composed by Hikaru Hayashi and is based on an old folk tale. Although the troupe adapted it without Hayashi’s permission, its performances were so successful that the composer chose to accompany the troupe on a tour to Hokkaido in 1974. Hayashi was struck by the excitement that Konnyakuza generated for his opera and wrote in a magazine at the time: “It was quite impressive to see pretty much the only opera in Japan that was able to entertain an audience was realized in a school gymnasium, which lacks the ideal conditions needed for the performing arts.”

Hayashi subsequently became Konnyakuza’s artistic director and composer in 1975, and has since composed a number of operas for the troupe. Hagi joined the troupe as a composer in 1979.

That brings us to the present day. Every year the troupe, which now has around 50 members, presents one or two new productions at a major theater in Tokyo, while performing pieces from its repertoire across the country. It ends up putting on approximately 250 performances each year.

Productions aren’t as grandiose as is typical with the opera; there’s a piano or a small-scale ensemble.

“We perform on the same stage as the singers,” says clarinetist Keiichi Hashizume, who has collaborated with Konnyakuza for more than 30 years. “As there is no conductor, we need to play in time with the singers as well as among the instrumentalists ourselves. While it’s difficult, it’s also thrilling.

“Another interesting thing about Konnyakuza is that the scene changes are done by the singers themselves, as part of the story.”

The troupe’s first show abroad was in 1999 at France’s Avignon Festival. There it performed “Gauche the Cellist,” an opera composed by Hayashi and based on a children’s story by Kenji Miyazawa.

“We didn’t use subtitles, only a few sheets of paper with short explanations,” Hagi recalls. “To my surprise, the French audience seemed to enjoy the show. I had the impression that the audience wouldn’t understand the Japanese words, but that was just as well as it led to a better understanding of the story by way of the music.”

Konnyakuza conducted several tours of Asia throughout the 2000s. Its shows were successful as Hagi notes, “We prepared subtitles but also tried to sing some key words in the local language,” which she says delighted audiences.

In 2009, the group returned to Europe and Hagi noticed a similarity in the way the troupe was being received abroad.

“We have sought to create a way of singing to deliver Japanese words clearly,” Hagi says. “People often tell us that the Japanese words are easy to hear, but I have gradually become more confident in our ability to express ourselves musically.”

Konnyakuza’s “Opera Club Macbeth,” which the troupe will perform from next week, originally premiered in 2007 and was a piece that Hayashi wrote late in life. He passed away in 2012, but left an impressive musical repertoire behind. Flautist Dai Himeda points out that in a span of almost 40 years the composer created 25 operas for Konnyakuza, “Not just two or three as many Japanese composers did. Such a rich legacy is rare throughout the history of introducing Western music to Japan.”

It’s a catalog that even Shakespeare himself would have been impressed with.

“Opera Club Macbeth” runs from Feb. 5 to Feb. 14 at Kichijoji Theatre in Musashino, Tokyo. Tickets cost ¥6,000 (with deals for students) and shows begin at various times. For details, call 044-930-1720 or visit www.konnyakuza.com.

Rethinking ‘the Scottish play’

Opera Theater Konnyakuza is staging “Opera Club Macbeth” in Tokyo’s Kichijoji neighborhood next week.

The late Japanese director Hisao Takase wrote the libretto, which looks at William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” from a different point of view: A salaryman, tired of toiling away in modern Japan, is sucked into a mysterious theater that is performing the Scottish play. Before long, however, the man himself becomes the titular character on stage.

The performance, which begins its run Feb. 5, will be directed by up-and-coming director Takashi Manabe, who will set the stage curtain as the boundary between reality and illusion.

“Humans cannot live without illusion,” Manabe says. “Here we have a man — or Macbeth — who goes further down a path even though he is aware of its catastrophic ending. That’s something people can relate to today.”

“(Late composer Hikaru) Hayashi’s music for ‘Macbeth’ is powerful, pacy and sometimes pop,” explains composer Kyoko Hagi, a Konnyakuza representative. “The way he worked was that he took a long time to consider the piece and then finished it quickly just before the deadline,” which led to some unique challenges.

Konnyakuza’s main singer, Satoshi Oishi, performed the role of the disgruntled salaryman, or Macbeth, in 2007 and says that at the time it was hard for him to memorize the final solo, which was completed just before “Opera Club Macbeth” premiered. He will reprise the role for the upcoming performances.

“I struggled to memorize it to a point where I could perform it at that time,” Oishi recalls. “This time, I can review it more carefully and I find that I’m enjoying being able to rediscover what Hayashi intended with each sound.”

Other performers include Nobuko Yamamoto as the wife of the man, or Lady Macbeth; Uruo Takano as Banquo; Naoto Tomiyama as Macduff; Hiromi Umemura, Rie Toyoshima and Hiroka Suzuki as the Three Witches and Mayumi Okahara as the queen of the witches.

The music will be played by flautist Dai Himeda, pianist Rikuya Terashima and percussionist Kumiko Takara.