‘Tale of Genji’ goes to the opera

by Kikuyo Komesu

An operatic version of the classic 1,000-year-old Japanese court novel “The Tale of Genji” will open in Tokyo next week staged by an American artistic director and a Japanese composer.

“The Tale of Genji” premiered in summer 2000 at the Opera Theater of St. Louis. It was staged by artistic director Colin Graham, who collaborated with composer Minoru Miki to write the libretto. OTSL will stage the Tokyo premiere at the Nissei Theater in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, starting Sunday.

The libretto is based on the first three books of Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s six-volume novel “The Tale of Genji” (“Genji Monogatari”), often regarded the supreme masterpiece of Japanese prose literature.

The book, loosely based on personalities in the Imperial court, tells of the life and loves of the emperor’s favorite son, known as Hikaru Genji.

The libretto focuses on the prince’s life and his love affairs with many women in his quest for the affection of his dead mother.

The opera is the seventh composed by Miki, who is well known for his efforts at internationalizing traditional Japanese instruments and encouraging collaborations between Western and Asian musicians.

Miki told Kyodo News that the ancient work has had an enormous influence on literature and other art forms, as well as on popular lore. It has been a continuing source of inspiration for artists — and he is no exception, Miki said.

“Novels such as Genji have survived for such a long time because they contain universal appeal and emotion,” Miki said. “I think, anybody, regardless of age, cultural background or time in history, can relate to and understand the psychology of the characters in the story.”

The opera was well received at its June 2000 premiere, with Opera News calling the production “a triumph.” The Wall Street Journal called Miki’s score an “atmospheric masterpiece,” according to the OTSL.

The spectacular staging and costumes — including golden Japanese screens and brilliantly colored Heian court costumes by famed Japanese designer Setsu Asakura and choreography by the distinguished Japanese traditional dance choreographer Kikushiro Onoe — also contributed to the dramatic effect of the production, Miki said.

“But above all, Graham and other American performers put profound sincerity into re-creating the spirit of the Japanese culture on the stage,” he said. “Their performance does not just skim the surface of the story.”

Miki also said it may be easier for Western audiences to get into the opera as it is staged in the Western style and performed in English.

He at first had difficulties in relaying to the conductor his intentions of creating the rather slow pace of life of the Heian period (794-1185) in which the story was set and written, he said.

The opera opens with horns and trombones but combines such instruments with the plucking sounds of koto, played by Reiko Kimura, and “pipa” (lute) and “qin,” played by Yang Jing from China.

Miki said he was inspired by Japanese court music and hopes to include it in operas in the future.

The opera will be performed on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday.