Stage

Bringing Japanese opera into the 21st century

by Chiho Iuchi

Contributing Writer

Conductor Kazushi Ono still remembers the first opera he attended, at the age of 10.

“My treasured ticket with its sophisticated designs got ruined,” Ono says, recalling how miserable he felt when the ticket stub was torn at the entrance. Of course, this is normal procedure, but the “heartbreaking incident” made the performance all the more tragic. The opera was Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata,” performed by the Fujiwara Opera at Tokyo Metropolitan Hibiya Public Hall in 1971.

“I remember that the very sad melodies prior to the first act and the third act were the same,” Ono says of the performance.

After developing a strong desire to master “the heart of opera,” that young boy went on to work around Europe and is now leading the opera industry in Japan, serving as the artistic director of opera at New National Theatre, Tokyo (NNTT).

But his musical story began long ago.

Ono says that since early childhood, he could not help but take physical action, such as rolling on the floor, whenever he was moved by music. He first conducted in public at 11, when he led his school instrumental ensemble at a concert in place of a sick teacher. This experience inspired his dream of becoming a conductor.

In addition to his love of music, proof of Ono’s leadership can be seen in his high school days. His enthusiastic recruitment of new singers increased the number of members of his school choir from just 20 or so to 90 in three years. The choir also developed in quality, eventually performing Dmitri Shostakovich’s oratorio “The Song of the Forests” in collaboration with the school wind ensemble under the initiative and baton of Ono.

Later, as a music student at Tokyo University of the Arts, Ono often served as a rehearsal pianist for opera performances, in addition to studying how to conduct orchestras. Before long, he was given opportunities to conduct during the rehearsals.

“I was excited by the powerful voices of the professional singers who sang just in front of me,” he says. “It made me want to study how to produce opera as a conductor.”

In 1986, after graduating from university, Ono moved to Munich, where he studied under maestros such as Wolfgang Sawallisch and Giuseppe Patane at the prestigious Bavarian State Opera. Fascinating and challenging circumstances in Europe nurtured Ono as a conductor. He attended opera performances every night and mastered multiple languages “so that I could communicate and discuss the lyrics with singers,” he says. Today, he is fluent in English, German, Italian and French.

In 1987, he won first place at the Arturo Toscanini International Conducting Competition, which paved the way for his starting his career in Europe. Ono served as the chief conductor of the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra in Croatia from 1990 to 1996, coinciding with that country’s war of independence. Later, he worked with European opera houses, including the Baden State Opera in Karlsruhe, Germany; the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels; and the Opera National de Lyon, France.

Despite being based in Europe as the music director of Barcelona Symphony Orchestra since 2015, Ono has spent more time in Japan in recent years, serving as the music director of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra since 2015, and in his post at NNTT since October 2018.

Ono is happy with his achievements during his first season at NNTT, having created new domestic opera productions. A highlight was “Asters” (“Shion Monogatari” in Japanese), which was staged in February.

“A story set in Japan, the opera was composed by Japanese (Akira Nishimura), directed by Japanese (Yoshi Oida) and performed by an all-Japanese cast in the Japanese language,” says Ono, who conducted the opera.

Another highlight was the new production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot,” which was staged in Tokyo, Shiga Prefecture and Hokkaido, as part of the Summer Festival Opera 2019-20 Japan-Tokyo-World event, a cultural program on the sidelines of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.

Greatly owing to Ono’s network and leadership, the Japanese opera industry collaborated with the experts of La Fura dels Baus, one of the most sought-after theatrical groups from Barcelona, for the first time.

“It was exceptionally fortunate that director Alex Olle stayed with us for four weeks in Japan,” Ono says of the project. He also involved the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra in the event.

Both “Asters” and “Turandot” were favorably received by the audience, as well as music critics from abroad, with Ono stating that NNTT made its worldwide presence known.

Innovator: Kazushi Ono (third from left) staged a new production of Giacomo Puccini's 'Turandot' earlier this year. | MASAHIKO TERASHI / COURTESY OF NEW NATIONAL THEATRE, TOKYO
Innovator: Kazushi Ono (third from left) staged a new production of Giacomo Puccini’s ‘Turandot’ earlier this year. | MASAHIKO TERASHI / COURTESY OF NEW NATIONAL THEATRE, TOKYO

His second season at NNTT opens with a new production of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” directed by Dmitry Bertman, the founder and artistic director of Helikon Opera in Moscow known for its experimental projects, and conducted by Andriy Yurkevych from Ukraine. It features Russian singers such as baritone Vasily Radyuk in the title role and soprano Evgenia Muraveva as Tatyana.

While assuring the quality of the upcoming performance in collaboration with Russian experts, Ono says that the reason for the new production is because NNTT owns no Russian opera stage sets.

“It’s a shame for an opera house with a history of 20 years,” says Ono, pointing out the poor storage situation of NNTT, not just for the sets of Russian operas.

“Rather than renting and returning the stage sets from abroad one after another, we should have more productions of our own,” he says. With this in mind, the program of the new season also includes new productions of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” from bel canto (Italian-originated vocal style) opera and George Frideric Handel’s 1724 opera “Giulio Cesare,” one of the most-performed operas from the Baroque period (ca. 1600-1750).

“I would like to enrich the source of productions for each genre so that NNTT will be able to stage operas in more variations and, eventually, more operas from the 20th century by the end of my tenure,” he says.

Ono has also come to understand the rather conservative tastes of NNTT’s audience through his year of observation.

“They study very well before attending a performance,” he says. “But I hope that we will be able to open their eyes and ears to a wider variety of operas.”

On Aug. 28 at Suntory Hall in Tokyo, George Benjamin’s 2012 opera, “Written on Skin,” had its Japanese premiere under the baton of Ono, who led the delicate music of one of the most successful 21st century operas with discreet yet clear gestures, balancing the human voices with instrumental sounds. Supplemented by video projections as part of the stage set designed by Shizuka Hariu, the semi-staged performance fascinated the music lovers who flocked to Suntory Hall Summer Festival, an annual focus point for international contemporary music.

While admitting that it is too early to attract a capacity audience at NNTT with “Written on Skin,” Ono says he hopes to perform it there one day.

In August 2020, NNTT is scheduled to stage “Super Angels,” which features an android singer with artificial intelligence that will collaborate with a choir of 100 children.

“The opera pursues the question of how human beings could live better in coexistence with AI,” Ono says.

Fulfilling his role as the artistic director of opera, with the program and deployment of talents being all set for the new season, Ono will return to work in Europe until early next year, when he will bring back his latest expertise to Japan and lead Richard Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg” (“The Mastersingers of Nuremberg”), the next big project ahead of the 2020 Olympics.

Although we live in an era of the internet and AI, Ono is confident in the potential of live opera performances.

“By incorporating highly trained human voices, the sound of the orchestra, well-thought out libretto and visual elements, opera performances offer art that may move the audience,” Ono says. “People are moved and inspired only if they are alive. That’s what it means to be human. Art promotes that.”

“Eugene Onegin” will be performed at New National Theatre, Tokyo, on Oct. 1, 3, 6, 9 and 12. Tickets from ¥1,620 to ¥27,000. For more information, visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp.