New National Theatre, Tokyo, hopes ‘Yuzuru’ will help Japanese opera soar

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Imitation may be a form of flattery, but it is also an important first step for creative genesis. The 1952 premiere of “Yuzuru” by Ikuma Dan — half imitation of Western operatic traditions and half Japanese creative innovation — marked a milestone in the development of opera in Japan.

Since the early part of the 20th century, Japanese opera has quietly emerged to take its place in the country’s thriving performing arts world, influenced by (but separate from) its Western origins and local traditions such as kabuki or noh. The opera section of the New National Theatre, Tokyo (NNTT) established in 1997 as Japan’s first national opera house, has in the last 10 years, it has garnered a reputation among Japanese opera lovers for accessibility and high-quality performances. The NNTT will reprise “Yuzuru” on Feb. 4-6, and the selection reflects both the past and the future of opera in Japan.

The first aria ever to float across a Japanese stage was performed near the docks of Yokohama by an amateur group of foreign residents soon after the 1868 Meiji Restoration. The show came nearly 270 years after opera’s inception in Italy during the latter part of the 16th century. Europe was in the middle of a golden age of opera by the time the art form arrived on these shores. Perhaps it is because of this late entry that some in the West perceive Japanese composers and musicians in the classical-music field as simply imitating their European counterparts.

Even renowned Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa suffers from this. He has said repeatedly that due to his Japanese identity he does not have a classical music heritage coursing through him like his Western counterparts, who can conduct more freely. Despite a successful international career, Ozawa feels he still must continually learn and experiment with the artistry of the genre.

“I understand very well why Maestro Ozawa feels this way. Our teacher Hideo Saito taught us to imitate perfectly, which then provided us with well-grounded basic skills,” Tadaaki Otaka, artistic director of opera at the NNTT, tells The Japan Times. Like Ozawa, Otaka was a pupil of Saito, the pioneering Japanese cellist and conductor.

He recalls: “Saito said in his lessons: ‘We Japanese distinguish the aesthetic values of ink-wash paintings and the delicate tastes of Japanese food. There must be a (similarly sophisticated) Japanese approach in performing Western classical music.’ I don’t think for one moment that we are merely imitating Western classical music these days.”

Otaka has led a number of orchestras at home and abroad, including the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Many other Japanese musicians have successfully made this transition to the international stage, but never with enough impact to forge a larger reputation worldwide for original Japanese classical music and opera.

Michael Sinclair, editor of webzine The Opera Critic, recognizes the problem.

“With the advent of the New National Theatre, Tokyo, which has adopted a policy of engaging international singers, conductors and directors for most of their productions, many of the top singers in the world are now appearing in Japan on a regular basis,” he tells The Japan Times. “But despite this internationalization, opera in Japan still falls well below the radar when looked at from outside the country.”

Sinclair also notes that neither international nor original productions in Japan receive significant coverage in English, and the key venues for opera in Japan (including the NNTT) therefore have little global recognition.

University of Chicago music professor Philip Gossett concurs, admitting he knows little about opera in Japan.

Nonetheless, Gossett adds that, “The opera companies and serious operatic performers in Europe and the United States that I know personally who have traveled to Japan to produce Western operas have returned enthusiastic about the experience and the quality of the audiences who attend,” says Gossett.

Sinclair suggests that the NNTT and other venues in Japan could do more to build a reputation by joining media forces with the rest of the opera world.

“The globalization of opera means that people outside Japan will be interested in what Japan is doing even if they never attend a performance,” says Sinclair. “Opera fans are always interested to hear what their favorite singers are doing and opera professionals need to keep tabs on singers, conductors and directors as they perform around the world.”

For the future of opera in Japan, and Japanese operas in particular, a reputation must be established. Otaka believes it must start with Japanese composers.

“Italians have Verdi’s operas. Germans have Beethoven and Brahms,” says Otaka. “We Japanese had nothing. Only recently, music by Toru Takemitsu became internationally recognized.”

Otaka understands that part of his mission as the NNTT’s artistic director is to build the reputation of Japanese composers by showcasing the best of Japanese opera. Hence he is following the NNTT’s tradition of performing at least one Japanese opera per year. Since “Yuzuru” premiered in 1952, Japanese opera has steadily emerged. Composers as varied as Minoru Miki (“The Tale of the Genji,” U.S. premiere in 2000), Akira Miyoshi (“Faraway Sails,” 1999) and Toshio Hosokawa complement distinctively Japanese narratives — or modern Japanese interpretations of Western narratives (as is the case with Hosokawa’s “Vision of Lear,” which was showcased at the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera in London in 2002) — with diverse fusions of Western and Japanese traditions in music. Last season, the NNTT premiered the original Japanese opera “Rokumeikan” composed by Shinichiro Ikebe and based on Yukio Mishima’s play with an original libretto by Hitoshi Uyama, which resulted in an elegant, layered unification of East and West. The NNTT announced last week a new production of Teizo Matsumura’s 1993 work “Silence” for the 2011-2012 season, and Otaka confirms he has commissioned a composer to create a new Japanese opera to premiere in the next three years, though he is keeping the details under wraps.

Japanese opera did not start with “Yuzuru,” but its continuing popularity marks a confirmation of the potential of the genre in Japan. At first, Otaka worried that reviving such a renowned piece might have audience members groaning at yet another production of it, but he stands by his decision.

“Yuzuru is our gold standard,” he says. “Performed more than 700 times since it premiered, it is the one with the highest profile, and above all, it is acclaimed because of its beautiful music.”

The story comes from traditional Japanese folklore. A compassionate villager, Yohyo, saves an injured crane. Impressed by his kindness, the crane assumes human form and becomes his wife, Tsu. She weaves Yohyo a luxurious cloth made from her own feathers, but their happiness is destroyed when two greedy men discover the beautiful cloth and convince Yohyo to force Tsu to weave more of it. In the end, Tsu resumes the shape of a crane and flies away.

” ‘Yuzuru’ presents the fundamentals of Japanese ethics,” says Mexico-based Japanese violinist Yuriko Kuronuma, who has produced the opera with an all-Mexican cast several times. “As for the music, although there is an integration of traditional Japanese folk song and warabe-uta (children’s song), it is basically written in Western classical-music idioms, which I think is like an international language.”

Despite the success of “Yuzuru” and other Japanese operas, for Otaka, the ultimate goal must be showcasing the originality of Japanese composers through performances overseas.

“We need to create our own identity,” says Otaka. “For Japanese musicians, it will be realized when a Japanese work is universally accepted as world-class. In this regard, I hope our operas can be performed by international casts at major opera houses overseas some day.”

Although small efforts are succeeding, a lot more must change less Japanese opera suffer a fate as sad as Yohyo and Tsu’s. As Sinclair muses, “I suppose the question that needs to be asked is whether Japanese composers are keen to have their works performed overseas. If they are, then it is clear that more work needs to be done to promote these works at the time of the Japanese premiere.”

Possibilities abound in today’s performing arts world, with companies such as the Metropolitan Opera in New York offering live, high-definition performance transmissions via satellite. Surely it is time for a set of Italian curtains to rise on a Japanese production.

“Yuzuru” will be performed Feb. 4 at 6:30 p.m., and Feb. 5 and 6 at 2 p.m. at the New National Theatre, Tokyo. Ticket prices range from ¥3,150-¥15,750. For more information, visit