For Atsushi Yamada, conductor of the New York City Opera, his presentation of Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly” to be staged in Tokyo and Nagoya in May will be something of a triumphant return.
Seven years after joining the opera company as an unpaid assistant to NYCO’s music director George Manahan, he will conduct what will be the company’s first full opera production outside North America in its 62-year history.
Top billing in the dual-opera production, which is part of the U.S. cultural program at Aichi World Expo, will be “Little Women,” an opera based on the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott and conducted by Yamada’s mentor Manahan. However, Yamada’s performance is equally significant in that it will serve as a lesson to people who assume artists without diplomas cannot make it in the world of professional classical music.
“In the music world of the U.S., nobody asks you whether you graduated from a music school or not. All that counts is what you can do. At the New York City Opera, one’s alma mater never affects one’s evaluation,” said Yamada in an interview, obviously brimming with confidence gained from his experience.
Yamada’s career is proof that you can always veer from your chosen path. At Waseda University, he majored in earth science and mineralogy, but music was an important part of his life. At Waseda, he studied under conductor Yoichiro Fukunaga and conducted a male chorus there. While he was a senior, he helped Fukunaga, music director of the Fujisawa Civic Opera and Orchestra in Kanagawa Prefecture, with the production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Aida.”
After graduation, in 1987, he joined IBM Japan, Ltd. and went on to become one of their top salesmen. In 1992, he was headhunted by Sony Life Insurance Co. and was equally successful there.
Since his salary was based on sales commissions and he only had to go to the office two mornings a week, the budding conductor had the time and freedom to pursue music activities. Not that he wasn’t serious about his job: “If I had neglected work as a salesman, someone would have reported me,” Yamada explained.
So by day, he sold insurance; by night, he conducted the Tokyo Academia Symphony and the Chorus Philharmonia Association. One accomplishment during that time was a highly praised series of charity concerts to benefit the survivors of the Great Hanshin Earthquake.
While he was an amateur conductor, Yamada produced and conducted Verdi’s opera “La Traviata” in 1997. He invited a soprano from the New York City Opera for the leading role to join the production and borrowed a stage set and costumes from Bologna’s Teatro Comunale.
Despite his serious devotion to music, Yamada was frustrated by his lack of a “formal” music education. He recalls that in rehearsals Japanese professional singers never greeted him and were often openly hostile to him.
Yamada realized he had to put his talent to the test not in this insular nation but abroad. Instead of journeying to Europe, long a training ground for many Japanese musicians, Yamada chose New York.
Yamada’s English ability was a big factor in his decision. It was during his time at IBM Japan that Yamada had honed his language ability, partly because he had to read thick work manuals written in English.
So in 1998, he flew to New York with the intention of applying to the esteemed Julliard Music School as well as the Manhattan School of Music. But while he was there, an acquaintance suggested that he get hands-on experience by working under Manahan and went to the trouble of sending an application to the New York City Opera’s music director.
Not long after that, Yamada received a telephone call from Manahan himself and was told to come to the opera company for an interview. Three months after the interview, he auditioned and was accepted as an unpaid assistant to Manahan.
Equality in New York’s music scene certainly was a boon for Yamada’s development as a musician.
“In New York, whether you have a music diploma or not, you begin at the same starting line with everyone. Diplomas or academic connections ensure you nothing there,” Yamada said.
Describing his job of an assistant, Yamada said, “An opera house is completely different from the world of symphonies. An assistant must know every function related to the production and every person working, including the stage hands and people in the ticket office.
“Speaking figuratively, you must first live in an opera house to know how it truly works.”
Having cut his teeth as an assistant, Yamada conducted Gioacchinio Rossini’s opera “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” performed by a touring company of the New York City Opera that traveled to major U.S. cities for the 1999-2000 season. For the 2002-2003 season, he made his New York stage debut by conducting Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel.”
Looking back on his experience, Yamada said that it takes several years of training before one can conduct an opera.
“The first obstacle to overcome is languages. You must be able to understand Italian and German. You must be able to understand the libretto as opera singers do and to discern whether the singers’ pronunciation is correct,” Yamada said.
“Few Japanese conductors understand why a certain particular word is on a certain particular beat. I was trained to that extent at the New York City Opera.”
Since Japan lacks real opera houses, Yamada believe this country can’t “offer an environment in which true opera conductors are nurtured.”
Currently, Yamada has to conduct 12 different operas, totaling 120 performances, during each annual opera season.
“Each season continues seven months, and I have to deal with a dozen different scores, each amounting to more than 400 pages. It is just like preparing for a battle,” he said.
“Madame Butterfly” as conducted by Yamada should provide Japanese audiences with a glimpse into the New York City Opera’s approach to producing classical opera works.
“Madame Butterfly” is a tragic love story between U.S. Navy Lieutenant Pinkerton and a former geisha Cio-Cio-San (Madame Butterfly) set in Nagasaki.
But Yamada has a caveat for Japanese audiences: “The typical images of ‘Madame Butterfly’ — such as cherry blossoms and a Japanese house — will not appear in our stage, The setting is minimalist. I would like audiences to ponder why we have presented it like this.
“Although Puccini loved Japan, he never came to Japan. The opera represents a Japan constructed in his imagination,” he explained.
Having finally realized his career dream, Yamada now has a clear mission: “The job of a professional musician is to move audiences. The conductor must not be moved by his or her own performances. As the day’s host, he or she must not say ‘Today’s performance was good’ until the last member of the audience leaves the hall.”
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