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Diego Pellecchia: When heavy metal and noh collide

by Mika Eglinton

Name: Diego Pellecchia
Age: 38
Nationality: Italian
Occupation: Noh theater scholar and practitioner, associate professor at Kyoto Sangyo University
Likes: Heavy metal, pizza
Dislikes: The 15-hour Japan-Italy flight


1. What first brought you to Japan? I came here to study noh theater.

2 You are originally from Brescia in Italy. What’s great about Brescia?

The area’s diversity — lakes, mountains, vineyards are all within a 30-minute drive. Also, we have this killer aperitif called Pirlo, a mix of Campari and white wine.

3 What does your noh theater name — 高谷大悟 (Takaya Daigo) — mean? Takaya means “high valley” and it was chosen because my surname, Pellecchia, is the name of a mountain close to Naples. Daigo means “great enlightenment.” Despite its grandiloquence, it was simply chosen because it sounds similar to my Italian name and is easy to write by hand.

4 Where does your interest in noh theater come from? It started with Akira Kurosawa’s film “Throne of Blood,” which is influenced by the aesthetics of noh. However, I have come to realize that my background in heavy metal and fantasy literature also played an important role in preparing the grounds for appreciating a kind of theater in which most of the characters are deities, demons or ghosts.

5. How did you start training in noh theater? I started to practice in Italy with Monique Arnaud. I followed her to Japan in 2007 as she was performing in Kyoto, where I was introduced to her teacher, Udaka Michishige, who is now my current teacher. After over a year of training in Italy, it was relatively easy to enter the training environment in Japan, although at that time I could not speak a word of Japanese!

6. What challenges are specific to a noh performer? Noh plays are performed in one-off events and the cast never rehearses together. This puts a lot of pressure on you and the performance feels like taking a leap in the dark. But it’s also very exciting to have that one chance to do what you may have been preparing for months.

7. What’s noh’s greatest appeal? Noh is a combination of various arts, including dance, music, poetry, costume design, mask carving, all of which have been perfected over six centuries. It is impressive to observe the movement of the ensemble while also appreciating each single element independently.

8. What’s your favorite noh play? I have a special relationship with “Kiyotsune,” the first piece I studied in Italy and the first I ever performed as a full noh play in 2013.

9. What’s on your mind when you’re performing? I try to focus on the basics: how to stand, walk, deliver the lines clearly with a right pitch and rhythm.

10. What would be the first step for someone wanting to learn noh? If you are not in Japan, a good starting point may be the many excellent English translations and visual resources in books and on websites. To study, one needs a teacher, so I recommend joining a training program. The next step would be coming to Japan to be immersed in the “world of noh.”

11. What’s your favorite Japanese word or phrase? “一期一会” (“Ichi-go ichi-e,” “One time, one meeting”): It’s an encouragement to treasure life events as unrepeatable.

12. What’s your typical day like? I am lucky enough not to have a “typical day.” The most common day would be: Italian coffee in the morning; a scooter ride to school along the Kamo River; meetings with students to study noh with them; in the evening, practice or give a noh workshop. On Sundays I often go to the noh theater. How many times did I just say noh?

13. How do you balance teaching at university and training in noh? It’s very hard. I need to prioritize my profession as a scholar, which is unavoidably informed by my practice. It can be frustrating not to be able to express myself at best in either, but I also feel very lucky being able to conduct diverse activities.

14. What aspects of teaching do you find most rewarding? I learn so much by interacting with my students. The more I give, the more I can get. I believe that the act of transmission of knowledge is the only way to make it complete.

15. What is the most challenging thing about teaching? Finding a way to transition between two pedagogic systems of memorizing facts and using heads to come up with answers.

16. What are you currently working on? One of the most interesting projects is an internet-based resource for Japanese traditional performance arts.

17. How do you relax? I was a musician in my previous life and I have a great passion for music. Usually I listen to music.

18. Can you tell us your secret hangout in Kyoto? Daihikaku in Arashiyma. It is a small temple built on a hill, with an awesome view of the Katsura River.

19. Where would you go if you won a free flight? Maybe India, the origin of so much of the culture we appreciate through noh.

20. What would you like to be doing in 10 years’ time? What I am doing now, but better. I hope I can introduce noh to more people. One of my objectives is to start a noh club at my university.