Next year, Yasushi Hirano will be celebrating his 20th anniversary in his adopted country of Austria. The 42-year-old bass-baritone opera singer decided to move to Vienna in 2000 shortly after graduating from Nihon University College of Art. It was a relatively easy decision that he says was partly inspired by two iconic Japanese sportsmen, soccer player Hidetoshi Nakata and baseball player Hideo Nomo, who were both making waves overseas at the time.
“It was really encouraging to see these fellow countrymen succeeding on the international stage,” Hirano says during a recent interview. “Nakata was making headlines for his performances in Italy and Nomo had become a star pitcher in Major League Baseball. It made me think that it would be great if I could go abroad myself and somehow represent Japan.
“Of course, I wasn’t an athlete, but I could sing. Wanting to succeed in the opera world, I knew I had to go somewhere in Europe.”
The Tokyo-born performer opted for Vienna, a city widely regarded as the musical capital of the world having nurtured many legendary composers including Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Strauss and Haydn. Birthplace of the Viennese waltz and home to the renowned Vienna State Opera, the city naturally appealed to Hirano. He didn’t hesitate when Austrian soprano Rotraud Hansmann suggested he move there to study at the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna.
“Hansmann came to Tokyo to teach a special course during my third year at Nihon University and kind of scouted me,” recalls Hirano. “She was very complimentary of the way I sang. Looking back now, I don’t think I had a very powerful voice then, but at the time I believed everything she said. I had lots of confidence and believed I could go to Europe and succeed. Vienna, with such a rich musical history, seemed like the ideal place.”
Hirano’s introduction to opera began in his late teens. A high school teacher, who heard him sing in an exam and felt he had the potential to take things further, recommended him to a professor at Nihon University.
Prior to that, the young Hirano was into techno and electronic dance groups such as Underworld. The thought of listening to classical music or watching an opera hadn’t occurred to him.
“That changed during my freshman year at university,” says Hirano. “The first operatic concert I watched was performed by the Three Tenors at the Tokyo National Stadium in 1997. It was an unforgettable experience for me. The highlight was ‘Nessun Dorma’ (an aria from the final act of Giacomo Puccini’s ‘Turandot’). The crowd was mesmerized and I had goosebumps. Being a bass-baritone (now), I know I can’t reach those notes, but watching that performance strengthened my desire to become a professional opera singer.”
Hirano achieved that objective after more than a decade as a music student in Japan and Austria (four years each as an undergraduate in both countries, followed by three more on a master’s course in Austria). Like many people settling into a new country, his biggest struggle early on was communicating with locals, but at no point did he feel homesick.
“It’s quite tough when you first move abroad, but I never thought about returning to Japan,” he says. “I went to Austria with a specific goal and there was no way I was going to leave without accomplishing what I set out to do.
“My old school friend, the footballer Kazuyuki Toda, had gone to England to play for Tottenham Hotspurs. We had a friendly rivalry so, like him, I wanted to perform in front of large crowds in Europe. Simply going there to study wasn’t enough.”
After completing his master’s course in 2007, Hirano spent a year as an ensemble member at Graz Opera in Austria’s second-largest city. He then returned to the capital for the 2008/09 season with the famed Volksoper Wien becoming his new home base. Seen as Vienna’s opera house for the people, Volksoper Wien is loved by both tourists and locals. Performing before the latter down the years regularly proved an exciting, though, nerve-wracking experience for the Japanese bass-baritone.
“I’ve always found it hard singing and trying to express myself in German on stage in front of native speakers,” admits Hirano. “I began studying the language around a year and a half before going to Austria and of course gradually improved. I became quite confident in my pronunciation, but it’s different when you have a large audience. I guess it would be like a foreigner in Japan doing kabuki or singing enka.”
This year marks Hirano’s 11th at Volksoper Wien. During that time, he’s been singing a broad repertoire of operas by the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, Puccini and Rossini. He still gets butterflies in his stomach when he goes on stage, but more so on days when he has less than 24 hours to prepare to cover for someone pulling out.
Now completely settled in Vienna with his Japanese pianist wife and two children, Hirano says the best thing about the city is how easy it is to live there. This comes as no surprise; Austria’s capital has been named the world’s most livable city 10 years in a row by the Mercer Quality of Living survey. The study ranks 231 cities around the globe on factors including political stability, crime, healthcare, education and public transport.
“I feel comfortable here. It’s safe, easy to get around, and not so crowded,” Hirano says. “It took me a while to get used to the Viennese people, but now it’s easier. They remind me of Kyotoites. Sometimes, on the surface it might seem they’re enjoying your company, while inside they’re telling you it’s time to leave. People here are not systematic, but still organized. It’s a good middle ground.”
Enjoying life in one of Europe’s former imperial cities, Hirano is not planning on a permanent return to his homeland any time soon, though he returns to Japan annually to perform.
In the future he says he would like to promote Japanese culture more in Austria and wants to “make his country proud.” As the only Japanese opera singer at the Volksoper, it could be argued that he’s doing that already.
Name: Yasushi Hirano
Profession: Opera singer
Key moments in career:
1996 — Begins undergraduate studies at the Nihon University College of Art’s department of music
2000 — Graduates with the Dean’s Prize, and later moves to Austria to study at the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna
2005 — Finishes second in the Ada Sari International Vocal Artistry competition
2007 — Completes a master’s degree and is contracted as an exclusive singer with Graz Opera
2008 — Joins the Volksoper Wien. Performs in more than 150 shows in his first four seasons
2011 — Receives significant media attention in Austria following the Great East Japan support concert
Favorite place in Vienna: “Turkenschanzpark in the 18th District — it’s a wonderful public space to relax.”
Favorite quote: “Finding constraints leads to creation” — architect Kengo Kuma