In the Roman amphitheater of Verona, Italy, the elephants and horses in ancient Egyptian regalia marched onto stage to the thunderous chords of Guiseppe Verdi’s opera “Aida.” The singers filled the balmy night with their voices, soaring over the trumpets and crashing cymbals of the orchestra — and for one girl watching the spectacle it seemed like “a world of dreams.”
The other students in the junior high-school music class in snowy Asahikawa, deep in Hokkaido, giggled at the funny men and women making a ruckus in the Blu-ray video playing on the classroom television. But 14-year-old Kano Ozawa found herself spellbound by the costumes and the pageantry and the enormous performers whose naked voices could fill an arena packed with thousands of spectators.
“It shook me to the core,” she recalls of her first encounter with opera. “I couldn’t make head or tail of it, but I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.'”
Ozawa currently lives in Turin, Italy, struggling to make it as a professional in her “dream world” of Italian opera. Japanese opera singers now have a long and distinguished record performing on the global stage. However, Ozawa has chosen a rarer path: training to become an operatic theater director.
She graduated this year from Turin’s State Music Conservatory, one of the few Italian music schools with an opera directing department, winning its grand prize for her graduation production of the little-known Camille Saint-Saens opera “La Princesse Jaune.”
Now she faces greater challenges gaining recognition as a young Japanese woman in a world of operatic mise-en-scene that is infamously hierarchical and male-dominated.
“It’s very difficult as an unknown opera director,” she says, “but little by little, refusing to give up, I’d like to find the path to success.”
Five minutes in a Hokkaido classroom set Ozawa on the unusual journey. The teacher showed only a snippet of Verdi’s “Aida” as part of an introduction to world music, but it was enough to hook her. She returned home and announced to her parents that she wanted to become an opera singer. Ozawa had no musical training, aside from a few years of elementary school piano lessons (“like most other kids”) but her parents said, “If that’s really what you want, go for it.”
The support shielded her from the scorn of the people around her, including a cram school teacher who laughed in her face and told her to stop “talking nonsense and fantasies.”
She began opera lessons in high school, and upon graduation enrolled at Tokyo’s Musashino Academia Musicae. Brilliant studies allowed her to jump to the city of her original operatic dream — Verona.
Ozawa thrived in the small Italian city with a world-class musical reputation, thronging with fellow Japanese opera students who provided a support network and camaraderie.
Her opera studies progressed and she learned Italian, but she soon felt a desire to break out of the close-knit community of Japanese music students there. She sought a bigger stage where she could test her abilities against Italian artists while immersing herself in Italian culture. That stage was the industrial powerhouse of Turin. She enrolled in the city’s prestigious conservatory, becoming one of only two Asian students among 40 in the vocal music department.
“At the school in Verona there were many Japanese students, so I was listening to Japanese singing voices all the time,” Ozawa says. “But placing myself in an environment like Turin I was able to hear live Italian voices much more close up during lessons.”
At the Turin conservatory, Ozawa discovered the vocation of opera directing. It had the same mesmerizing effect as her first encounter with opera as a teenager — and perhaps for similar reasons. If the intersection of music, drama and visual splendor thrilled Ozawa back then — coming together as “total art” — she now found that the person who pulled it all together in a single artistic vision was the director. Every operatic piece, down to the very last word, was open to myriad interpretations, and she could be the one to decide which one would reach the audience from the stage. That sense of possibility led her to transfer from vocal studies to opera directing.
“I thought, ‘What could be more interesting than this?'” she recalls. “Such a happiness can be possible in life.”
The decision came to artistic fruition with Ozawa’s graduation production of “La Princesse Jaune” — the phantasmagoric story of an artist who falls in love with a woman in a Japanese ukiyo-e print, inspired by the Japonism that raged through 19th-century Europe. The long-forgotten work was composed 30 years before Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” — the most famous opera set in Japan — and Ozawa was drawn to the challenge of reviving an opera rooted in occidental fantasies of her home country while infusing it with her own Japanese identity.
The production won accolades in the Turin press and drew large, enthusiastic audiences. Now Ozawa is visiting opera houses around Italy and beyond seeking new stages for the production.
Since the success of her graduation project, Ozawa finds herself plunged into the hard realities of professional life — and more determined than ever to succeed. If the cliche of the opera world is the tantrum-throwing prima donna, it can often be the big-name director who will be just as capriciously imperious, hostile to young talent seeking a step up the ladder.
“As an Asian woman in Europe’s opera world, I feel the difficulty of succeeding,” she says. “The people I’ve worked with up to now are people who have accepted me, knowing me as a person. But as a professional, the hard thing is getting people to get to know you at all.”
Ozawa calls her style of directing casual and collaborative — all T-shirt and jeans and running around the stage — and she hopes one day to enact a change in dictatorial operatic culture.
“Instead of the old image of classic director puffing on a cigarette, hurling insults from the back of the theater,” she says, “I want to create a new image of the opera director.”
Meanwhile, she finds herself fully immersed in the pleasures — and headaches — of Italian life. She lives alone and mostly associates with an Italian and international crowd, from music school as well as a translation company she worked for when she first arrived in Turin.
The improvised nature of Italian culture is a stark contrast to orderly Japan, and while it can lead to an endless succession of problems — “If something wrong isn’t happening, there’s something wrong!” — it can also provide inspiration for her work.
“Over centuries, the characters who appear in Italian opera, you can find them in ordinary people in Italian life,” she says. “Just chatting at the cafe, little gestures here and there. It’s beautiful. How do they do it? They have an ability to naturally express this culture that they were born with.
“There are good points and bad but just walking out in town with a friend and observing Italians in daily life, even that can be an inspiration. Italians themselves are a work of art.”
Name: Kano Ozawa
Profession: Opera director
Hometown: Asahikawa, Hokkaido
Key moments in career:
2007 — Graduates from Tokyo’s
Musashino Academia Musicae and moves to Verona
2011 — Moves to Turin and enrolls at
2014 — Starts to study opera directing
Life philosophy: “Shoshinkantetsu” (“To stick to your original intentions until they are realized”)
2017年 首席で卒業、演出科では外国人初 の栄誉賞を受賞