The New National Theatre, Tokyo, will open its 2014-15 season with “Parsifal,” the last completed opera by German composer Richard Wagner (1813-83). While opera fans will no doubt be thrilled at the long-awaited performance of this piece at the theater, they can expect an additional treat as Taijiro Iimori makes his debut as NNTT’s new artistic director of opera, conducting the piece himself.
“My career has always moved forward with operas,” the 73-year-old Iimori tells The Japan Times. The maestro is known in classical music circles as a leading expert in Wagner.
Iimori has been immersed in both classical music and the theatrical arts since childhood. While studying at Tokyo’s Toho Gakuen School of Music under renowned cellist and conductor Hideo Saito, Iimori gravitated toward opera, and served as stand-in repetiteur at the Fujiwara Opera company. It was there that he met its founder, Yoshie Fujiwara (1898-1976), a leading tenor at the time.
“Diving into the world of opera was a kind of youthful, rebellious act against my teacher, Saito, who focused on symphonic repertoire,” Iimori says.
He made his debut as a professional conductor in 1962 performing Giacomo Puccini’s opera “Sister Angelica” with Fujiwara Opera. That was followed by the troupe’s Japan tour in 1963, in which they performed Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata.”
“I conducted ‘La Traviata’ 51 times at public halls around Japan during the yearlong tour, something that would be unthinkable today,” Iimori recalls. “This experience convinced me of the absolute splendor of the opera. At the same time, I realized that I needed more study abroad as there was not a single opera house in Japan those days.”
Iimori avoided going to Europe because he was “afraid of being overwhelmed” by the strong traditions of cities such as London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna — he worried that being immersed in one tradition might bias him toward another. Instead, he made New York his destination as it was a melting pot of different styles.
“I wanted to get a panoramic view to broaden my mind,” he says.
During his stay in New York, Iimori studied under teachers from various countries, including Romanian conductor Jonel Perlea, and frequented the Metropolitan Opera House, where he became further enamored with the art form.
“There is nothing as wide as opera,” Iimori says. “It involves every part of our lives — history, philosophy, religion, ethnicity, culture, love and hate. Even a story that might be relegated to third-page news can become a piece of art once it is under the magical spell of music.”
Iimori took fourth place at a conducting competition in 1966, which resulted in his meeting Wagner’s granddaughter Friedelind. She was so impressed by his talent that she invited him to the master class of the prestigious Wagner-focused Bayreuth Festival, held in the German town of the same name.
He met Friedelind’s two brothers, Wieland and Wolfgang, themselves renowned opera directors. For almost two decades from 1970, Iimori worked at the Bayreuth Festival serving as an assistant to eminent maestros such as Karl Boehm, Eugen Jochum and Pierre Boulez. He also spent time working for institutions including the Hamburg State Opera in Germany and the National Reisopera of Enschede in the Netherlands.
Iimori also worked in Japan from time to time. In 1972, he conducted Wagner’s “The Valkyrie” with the Nikikai Opera Theater group — the first such performance of the work by Japanese.
However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Iimori turned his attention back to Japan. He worked with various orchestras and climbed the professional ladder slowly.
“I was already in my early 50s when I assumed the post of resident conductor” for the Nagoya Philharmonic, he says. Iimori also admits he was surprised when he was asked to be NNTT’s artistic consultant in 2012.
“Since the 1960s, it had been a dream for Japan to construct a theater dedicated to opera,” Iimori says. “I was glad that dream came true when the NNTT opened (on Oct. 10, 1997). Although it is still new, it has developed rapidly over the past 17 years. Now my mission is to transform the theater into one of the major opera houses of the world. I hope that my various experiences overseas can be of some help.”
The NNTT requested that Iimori mark this season’s opening, and his inauguration as artistic director of opera, with something by Wagner; “Parsifal” is the one major work by the composer that has yet to be performed at the venue.
It’s a long opera, lasting five hours and 40 minutes (that includes two intermissions).
“But it’s not just heavy viewing, the themes it deals with are so human,” Iimori says. “It is quite meaningful to spend nearly six hours just calmly listening to music, because people are so swamped with work and other obligations in today’s busy society.”
The NNTT production of “Parsifal” is being staged by German opera director Harry Kupfer. During a meeting of performers and staff members earlier this month, he pointed out that while Wagner was a devout Christian, he also had an interest in Buddhism throughout his life.
“Christianity and Buddhism, which are not supposed to be able to combine with each other, are integrated in this opera,” Kupfer said. “For example, the character of Kundry, who has been born again and again, could be better understood through a never-ending cycle of life and death through the ideas of Buddhism.
“Also, the philosophy of compassion — Mitleid in German — which means suffering together with others by sharing a feeling of pain, is treated as key in saving the world. And this may be an ethical principle that Christianity and Buddhism have.”
Kupfer, 79, has staged “Parsifal” twice in the past and will create a new version for the NNTT by imaginatively reworking a 1992 production performed at the Berlin State Opera. A simple and abstract stage setting will be used to symbolize the open-ended path that the characters take, one that viewers can hopefully relate to.
” ‘Parsifal’ is Wagner’s final opera and the completion of his life’s work,” Iimori says. He notes that a piece titled “Good Friday Music” in the third act expresses an admiration for the beauty of nature — one that could be connected to Buddhist ideals of coexistence with the world.
“Although there are differences between the religious philosophies (of Christianity and Buddhism), the amazing maturity of Wagner’s compositional technique enabled him to masterfully express religiousness though music instead of words,” Iimori says. “That allows the work to penetrate our hearts despite any differences between (the cultures of) East and West.”
As far as first impressions go, Iimori’s passionate approach to his new job looks likely to make his relationship with the NNTT a productive one.
‘Parsifal’ tells epic tale of battles and temptation
Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal” was 25 years in the making when it premiered at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany in 1882. The story is based on “Parzival,” a 13th-century poem by the German knight Wolfram von Eschenbach.
The story is set in a mythical region of medieval Spain and tells the story of a young hero who undertakes a quest to find the Holy Spear, which was used to stab Jesus Christ during his crucifixion, and save the injured King Amfortas. In the first act, we learn the king was attacked by Klingsor, a man who was rejected from the order of knights that Amfortas leads. Klingsor stole the Holy Spear from Amfortas and stabbed him with it.
After veteran knight Gurnemanz tells Amfortas’ story, a young boy who can’t remember his own name enters and is suspected to be special. The king earlier spoke of a prophecy that foretold a “pure fool, enlightened by compassion” would save him, so the boy is taken to see Amfortas and the Holy Grail, the cup that was used to collect Christ’s blood after he was stabbed with the spear. The boy gets confused and is driven away, and we later learn that he is Parsifal.
In the second act, the boy enters Klingsor’s magical castle. There he battles enchanted knights and is tempted by Kundry, a beautiful woman in a garden of seduction. She calls him by his name — Parsifal. And when she kisses him, he suddenly feels Amfortas’ pain and is able to understand true compassion and his mission. He rejects Kundry, who calls on Klingsor to kill him, but Parsifal withstands the attack and reclaims the Holy Spear. The villain’s castle crumbles.
The third act takes place years later. Parsifal returns to the domain of the Grail and Gurnemanz recognizes him as the boy he encountered long ago, but now the boy possesses the Holy Spear. He takes Parsifal to Amfortas, who is fraught with grief over the death of his father and his injury. Parsifal heals the king with the very spear that was used to harm him. He then unveils the Holy Grail as the knights kneel before him.
The “Parsifal” performance that will take place at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, features German Heldentenor Christian Franz in the role of Parsifal, British bass John Tomlinson as Gurnemanz, American baritone Robert Bork as Klingsor, Latvian bass-baritone Egils Silins as Amfortas and German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius as Kundry. The cast is rounded out by Japanese singers, a choir and the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra.
“Parsifal” will be performed at the New National Theater, Tokyo, on Oct. 2 (4 p.m.), Oct. 5, 8 and 11 (2 p.m.) and Oct. 14 (4 p.m.). Tickets cost between ¥1,620 and ¥32,400. For more information, call 03-5352-9999 or visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp.