Rethinking noh for the opera crowd

by Chiho Iuchi

Contributing Writer

Artists have long mined older works to create new forms of expression, just look at the continuing relevance of Shakespeare’s stories.

Among the oldest surviving performing arts of Japan, noh has been a source of inspiration for many in Japan. Combining narrative chanting, slow movements and minimal instrumental accompaniment, the art form has been remarkably resistant to change throughout its 650-year-history. It has thus had tremendous influence on other art forms here, such as kabuki. It has had some impact overseas as well. For example, English composer Benjamin Britten was inspired to compose his 1964 opera “Curlew River” based on the noh play “Sumidagawa.”

Another noh-inspired opera is “Matsukaze,” which was composed by Toshio Hosokawa in 2011 and premiered at La Monnaie in Brussels before moving to several cities across Europe. Last month, it was staged in Japan for the first time at the New National Theatre, Tokyo.

The original noh play, by 15th-century noh master Zeami, is a story of two sisters named Matsukaze and Murasame, who both fall for a courtier named Ariwara no Yukihira. However, Yukihira meets his death in Kyoto and the two sisters, both heartbroken, soon meet a similar fate. Their ghosts linger around their seashore home, and when a traveling monk visits, the ghosts relay their sad story. By singing and dancing, the two souls become liberated from the fixation for their beloved and finally move to the next world.

With a keen interest in the philosophy of the noh stage, Hosokawa creates a musical bridge that connects two worlds: both the living and the dead on stage and by transporting the audience from their own lives into this drama where the story takes place.

Directed by German choreographer Sasha Waltz, the opera uses contemporary dance to animate the production through the expressive body movements of around a dozen dancers. It’s a strikingly different scene from the stylized minimalism of typical noh dancing.

The two sisters, performed by soprano Ilse Eerens and the mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant, moved a lot, too. To the audience’s surprise they first appear from the ceiling, climbing down a huge woolen web that covered the backdrop of the stage courtesy of an installation created by Berlin-based Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota — all the while singing a consonant duet that resonated like an ancient hymn.

In addition to the soloists, an eight-member choir and a chamber orchestra, Hosokawa used various sounds from nature — waves, water drops and wind, both recorded and acoustic — in the piece.

The Hiroshima-born composer has said that those natural sounds were “deeply embedded” in his mind. As “Matsukaze” premiered in the same year as the Great East Japan Earthquake, it’s fitting that nature played a significant part in the piece.

In all, Hosokawa’s “Matsukaze” proves that looking back could provide a new generation of artists a creative way forward.