China and Japan: A 40-year friendship worth singing about


Special To The Japan Times

Forget allegations of spies and economic intrigue. Put aside the controversial Senkaku Islands and celebrate as the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing unites with the New National Theatre in Tokyo to commemorate the 40th anniversary of normalized relations between Japan and China. Two opera performances in Tokyo, on July 27 and 29, will be followed by two performances in Beijing, on Aug. 3 and 5, as the brightest singers and musicians in China and Japan take the stage together for the first time in history. Fittingly, they present the concert version of “Aida,” Giuseppe Verdi’s tale of cross-cultural love stretched across the barbed-wire field of politics.

“I am very proud they chose me for this concert in Japan and Beijing. Music is a special language,” says renowned Chinese soprano Hui He, who will sing the title role. “Internationally, every musician has the chance, musically and culturally, to find cooperation.”

Satoshi Mizuguchi, acclaimed Japanese tenor singing opposite as Radames, agrees: “I hope our performance can become the bridge that connects the hearts of people.”

Politics built the framework for that bridge. In September, 1972, the then Prime Minister of Japan Kakuei Tanaka, was invited to the People’s Republic of China to meet Chairman Mao Tse-tung in order to officially normalize relations between the two neighboring countries. This was the first step that led to the 1978 Treaty of Peace and Friendship Pact between Japan and China.

Both soloists for the performances have successfully traversed international boundaries to forge careers in Asia and the world. Having grown up in Xi’An, in Shaanxi province, He experienced the lingering remnants of the Cultural Revolution, but ever since she won second prize at the Placido Domingo’s Operalia, The World Opera Competition in 2000, she has graced every major opera stage in Europe and America — from Milan’s la Scala to London’s Covent Garden to The Met in New York.

Based in Vienna where he was the first Japanese student to graduate with honors from the Vienna Music University, Mizuguchi, too, has performed all over the world, stockpiling various accolades throughout his career, beginning with first prize at the 1988 Milan International Competition. Mizuguchi, who endeavors to fuse traditional Japanese music with opera, returns frequently to Japan, and also performs at traditional noh theatres.

“It will be my first time to perform in China and the first time I will share the stage with Ms. He,” he says. “I am really looking forward to the performances.” Likewise, He is making her opera debut in Japan with the performances.

China and Japan’s tangled history, with centuries of Japan’s reverent emulation of Ancient China followed by 20th-century Imperialism and the current lingering tensions, makes “Aida” a pertinent choice.

“Aida” reworked the boundaries of art and politics with its very conception. Commissioned in the 19th century by the Khedive of Egypt Ismail Pasha, the opera straddled both history and contemporary politics. Set in Ancient Egypt, the tale depicts the love between Radames, an Egyptian guard, and Aida, an Ethiopian princess who is his captive. After its premiere in Egypt in 1871 and the next year in Italy, Verdi’s opera won artistic acclaim around the world, as simultaneously on the political stage, Egypt prepared to colonize Ethiopia, leading to the Egyptian-Ethiopian War of 1875-1877.

“The scale of ‘Aida’ is dynamic, and the work crossed boundaries from the beginning. To celebrate such a major event (as the anniversary of Japan-China relations), ‘Aida’ is the best to perform,” says Mizuguchi.

Both the stars have ample experience with the opera. Mizuguchi returns to NNTT after starring in “Aida” to mark the theater’s inaugural season in 1998, and He sang her 100th performance as Aida last month in China.

As a concert version, the staging will speak primarily with the music. Performers take the stage in elegant black tie and dress with no elaborate sets, and the total running time is 150 minutes. Conductors Junichi Hirokami in Japan and Zhang Guoyong in China will direct an orchestra of Japanese and Chinese musicians and singers, all of whom are taking the stage together for the first time. A powerful, 100-strong chorus will add to the drama, as singers for the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing, join members of the New National Theatre in an impressive collaboration. Supporting roles, also divided evenly between Chinese and Japanese nationals, include Chenye Yuan as Aida’s father Amonasro, and Kasumi Shimizu as Amneris, the Princess of Egypt who loves Radames herself.

The two companies have long supported arts in Asia, and the 2012 China-Japan Friendship Year for People to People Exchange provided the perfect opportunity to showcase the shared beliefs created by this cultural harmony.

“Opera is international; you can perform it in any country. Therefore we need to start looking toward the next generation where we can change the spirit we now have into truly international speech,” says Mizuguchi.

“It is an exciting honor on such an important occasion for the Chinese and Japanese people,” says He in agreement. “Japan is also an important destination in the theater world, and to celebrate Chinese-Japanese friendship by making my Japanese opera debut is also an honor.”

“Aida” will be performed on July 27 at 5 p.m. and July 29 at 2 p.m. at the New National Theatre, Tokyo; and on Aug. 3 and 5 at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing. Tickets in Japan range from ¥4,200 to ¥12,500. For more information, visit (Japan) or (China).