When one considers the traditional classical arts of Japan,
kabuki, bunraku and Noh dramas come immediately to mind. Yet,
opera as expressed in the works of Bellini, Verdi, Wagner and
Puccini are looked upon as western imports. Yet, this is not necessarily
the case. The Japanese in this past century have made a significant
contribution to the artistic expression of opera. As with most
things western, the Japanese have first studied, then imitated
and finally produced their own classical genre of the form. As
a result, today Japan is perhaps producing more operas by new
composers than any country in the West. Although the level of
inspiration may not be at the same level of a Verdi, Wagner or
Puccini, it is far beyond the level of superficiality. Opera today
is very much alive and thriving in the land of the Rising Sun
and represents a unique assimilation of both music and drama.
When Japan opened its doors to Western technology in the Meiji
Period, it also opened up its mind to western culture and musical
ideas. Among this almost idolatrous embracing of the West was
an awareness of the value of opera as an expression of western
art. The Japanese were determined to study the form, analyze it,
perform it and eventually convert it into a form which is uniquely
As a result, the modern operas being written today in Japan
have veered away from the traditional works of the 19th
century European composers and they are distinctly different from
their own Kabuki plays. In the past, kabuki, with its unique form
of vocal production and stylized mannerisms was spoken of erroneously
as Japanese opera, but Japanese opera today has evolved as its
own musical form distinctly different from kabuki and uniquely
different from western opera which has served as its model.
During the early days of the Meiji Restoration, when Japan began to open up to western trade, culture and ideas, the world of opera also began to make its presence known. Traveling companies composed of amateur groups of foreign residents began performing in Japan during the early days of the Meiji era and Yokohama was the cultural center perhaps because of the large number of foreigners living there. An amateur group of foreigners in Yokohama staged a production of the operetta Cox and Box by Arthur Sullivan in September 1870. This work was performed in the Chinatown section of Yokohama only four years after its London premier. The audience consisted mostly of Japanese intellectuals who were curious about this new art form and residents of the local ex-pat British community.
About a dozen professional western opera companies visited
Japan before the turn of the century. According to Kenji Masui,
a music historian, most performances were held at the Gaiety Theater
at Honchodori and later at the Public Hall in Yamate. However,
H. Vernon's Royal English Opera Company in 1879 performed in Tokyo
at the Shintomi-za. By the turn of the twentieth century opera
had established itself as part of the cultural scene.
At first, in order to reach Japanese audiences these early
attempts at opera performances were played within the framework
of a kabuki play. The attempt was not successful because traditional
kabuki fans had no idea about what was being said and were not
willing to play to see it.
Soon after Japanese intellectuals attempted to create a national
opera based on the words of Japanese composers. The first successful
attempt, composed in 1904, was a work about soldiers fighting
at the battlefield. This work, Roei No Yume, by Sueharu
Kitamura was in the form of an oratorio. It became quite popular
after Japan's victory over Russia in 1905.
The earliest work, however, which could actually be called
a Japanese opera was Hagoromo by Kosuke Komatsu. This work
was based on a Japanese myth and was well received by the audience.
However, it was a very short piece lasting only about twenty minutes.
Shoyo Tsubouchi, an intellectual who greatly encouraged this
new art form, wrote the libretto to a work entitled Tokoyami.
The music was composed by Tetteki Toga and it opened in 1906.
Thre years later in 1909 Kosaku Yamada composed a religious musical
called Chikai-no-hoshi. Which had a Christian theme. It
was performed at the Unitarian Church in Tokyo. Christian themes
were to become a regular feature in Japanese operas.
In 1911 the Imperial Theater was established. It was originally
intended as a venue to develop and promote the performing arts
and to serve as a place to entertain foreign guests and dignitaries.
It was here where opera had its real professional beginnings in
Japan. Several new Japanese works were commissioned and performed
but, although well-received, they were seen more as novelties
rather than enduring works of art. Some people took offense at
the merger between traditional Japanese themes and western music.
It was then decided in the Taisho Era that translated western
operas would replace attempts at creating original Japanese works.
Under the direction of Giovanni Rosi, an Italian hired by the
Imperial Theater to direct the opera division, Humperdinck's Hansel
Und Gretel was performed in 1913 sung in Japanese. Later Mozart's
Die Zauberflote was attempted but proved to be too difficult
to perform because of the vocal limitations of the soloists and
the technique required. The singers lacked the proper training
and the audience was unwilling to sit through the complex arias
and lengthy productions. Furthermore, what was truly lacking was
both the talent and training program needed to realize this western
II. POST-WAR RENNAISANCE OF OPERA:
The real breakthrough in opera, however, occurred after World
War II when Yoshie Fujiwara (1899-1976) launched an opera boom
with an opera company which he named after himself.
Fujiwara had studied voice in Italy and performed in the works
of Verdi and Puccini. He sang mostly lyric roles and gained an
international reputation. His opera company first performed Puccini's
La Boheme in 1934 to popular acclaim. With the help of
conductor Manfred Gurlitt, former general manager of the Statoper
Berlin, he was able to expand the repertory and improve the quality
of his company. During the war years several of their productions
were heavily censored because of unacceptable themes. For example,
Carmen met with disapproval because it featured a dishonored
But, after the war the company began to thrive as Japan, during
the Occupation, opened up more fully to western influence, ideas
and music. Opera also began to gain a stronger foothold.
In 1958 the Nihon Opera Kyokai was established which began
a new era that would eventually lead to the upsurge of original
Japanese operas sung by native Japanese singers who were far better
trained than their predecessors.
Today, opera is very much a part of the cultural life of Japan
and many companies are well-established. The best performances
are still held in Osaka and Tokyo but smaller regional opera companies
are being formed.
In an article for Opera News (1994) Dan Furst writes
about the Sakai City Opera in Osaka. He describes it as a "brave
young company that has shaken the Japanese opera world."
The company established in 1985 has the distinction of being the
only Japanese opera company that supports itself entirely through
local sponsorship and ticket sales. In addition, it runs an artist
development program which sends promising talent overseas to study
and shares joint productions with foreign companies in the United
States and Europe.
The company possesses a dynamic general manager, Tsutomu Masuko.
He had trained as a baritone but gave up a promising career to
concentrate on management and production. Masuko has considerable
international experience and has been able to invite foreign guest
singers to perform principal roles in his productions.
In addition, Tokyo which had always been the center of operatic performances and productions has recently opened a new National Theater for contemporary stage arts featuring the nations first State Opera House. The theater opened on October 10,1997. This new national theater stands in front of Hatsudai Station on the Keio Shinsen line in Shinjuku. The theater is a comprehensive facility for opera, ballet and modern dance - all art forms introduced to Japan since the Meiji period.
This New National Theater is a public facility similar to European and U.S. halls in that it features modern stage arts. The Opera House was inaugurated with a performance of Ikuma Dan's Takeru, an original opera based on a traditional Japanese folk myth. Subsequent productions at the new house have featured Verdi's Aida and Nabucco and Mozart's Die Zauberflote.
The Italian Newspaper Correra della Sera, reviewing the production of Aida reviewed also the Hall and praised the speed at which scenes were changed and the computerization of all the functions of the production. Franco Zeffirelli, the world-renown director responsible for the production, had nothing but praise for the theater. He lauded the entire facility saying that it was "possibly the best theater in the world today."
The new theaters in Osaka and Tokyo are not the only venues where opera is being performed. Other cities such as Nagoya, Kamakura, Hammamatsu, Okayama and Hiroshima have also opened new theaters specifically designed for opera productions and which contain state-of-the-art facilities to bring to life the greatest masterwork of operas comparable to those found in Europe and America. Within this decade Japan will have ten opera houses.
The College Opera House in Osaka is also a new addition to the cultural life of the city and one which is attached to a Music Conservatory which prepares artists for international and professional careers. Established in April 1989, the initial production featured a festive ensemble production of Verdi's Falstaff sung by an all-Japanese cast. In the years that followed they have performed a Mozart and Puccini series as well as significant works by Japanese composers. Among these native works are Youzuru by Ikuma Dan, Yosakoibushi by Kazuko Hara and the highly acclaimed and controversial Kinkakuji by Toshiro Mayuzumi.
It has been argued that while Japan has embraced western opera, it has yet to develop and train performers who are on par with those found in the West. While that may be true to some extent, it cannot be denied that many Japanese artists today have developed international careers and today can be found on the stages of the great opera houses of the world. In even more recent years the quality has improved and with the revived interest in opera productions and performances many singers need not go abroad to acquire stage experience and training in vocal production.
Yasuko Hayashi and Yoko Watanabe have been acclaimed abroad for their portrayals of Cio Cio San in Puccini's Madama Butterfly giving to this role a nuance and authenticity which western singers fail to comprehend. Although an Italian or Spanish soprano may arguably have sung the role better, it is doubtful that they could have mastered the hand movements and body gestures of Cio Cio San in the same way that a Japanese soprano could. For Hayashi and Watanabe these gestures come naturally.
Michie Nakamaru has been widely recognized both at home and abroad but her voice remains a curiosity. It is thinly produced and would appear to lack projection in a large opera house. Yet, she brings to her singing a commitment and intensity which makes up for her lack of vocal resources.
Taro Ichihara, a tenor of recent fame has developed and international career with appearances t La Scala and the Met. His story is a fairy tale come true. In February 1984 in Genoa he stepped in to replace an ailing Luciano Pavarotti in a performance of Verdi's Un Ballo In Maschera. The conductor Riccardo Chially was impressed with his voice and Ichihara was invited to sing the role of Malcolm at the Salzburg Music Festival in Austria. Other appearances led him to Paris where he sang Macduff. His performance enthralled the Parisians and he was dubbed the "samurai tenor" by Le Figaro.
Ichihara was born in 1950 in Yamagata prefecture in the small town of Sakata on the sea of Japan. He placed first in a music competition in Japan in 1979 and pursued an operatic career overseas. In 1981 he took second prize in the Verdi International Competition in Milan and first place in Barcelona, Spain.
His native compatriots back in his hometown were unaware of the importance of his achievement but as his international achievements proved his worth, he was able to bring Japanese audiences to an understanding of the world of opera.
A young soprano of gaining importance is Sinobu Sato. At the age of 26 she had a fully developed voice which was ready for exposure on the great stages of Europe and America. Her voice, clear, clean and easily produced, resonates with a clarion quality. She is capable of singing a wide range of music from Bellini to Puccini. She can manage the coloratura passages of "Casta Diva" with amazing agility and enter into the dark pathos of Verdi's Forza.
Her interpretation of Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata is significantly unique and poignant. In a production of this opera with the Fujiwara Opera she sang opposite Roberto Alagna who has since been hailed as the successor to the three tenors.
But, the young singers who bring pride to Japan's contribution to opera did not emerge from a vacuum. They are really part of a growing tradition, one which dates back to the Meiji and Taisho era. From those eras several names emerge which remain significant even today.
She starred in operas performed at the Imperial theater in Tokyo until 1913 when she left for Singapore. This was before the beginning of World War I . She left Japan to follow her lover who later became her second husband. He was a doctor named Seitaro Miura and the incident created quite a stir among conservative Japanese back home. Together Tamaki and Seitaro set out for Europe. They had intended to go to Germany in 1914 but the outbreak of the war in that country caused them to change their plans and they headed for London instead.On May 31,1915 she sang the role of Madama Butterfly for the first time at London's Opera House. She was praised by the London Times for herclear, birdlike voice and way of indicating changes of expression by subtlechanges of timber. The critics also praised her hand gestures which were found to be highly expressive and engaging.
After fifteen performances of Butterfly in London, she went to America and performed the same role with the Chicago Lyric Opera. She sang over one hundred performances of the role in the years that followed gaining a sum of $1,000 for each performance which was quite a lot in those days. She toured also in South America and Europe and in 1918 at the end of the war she sang in a victory celebration. She was escorted to the stage byWoodrow Wilson and sang before two thousand American soldiers.Her most glorious moment came in Italy when Giacomo Puccini himself invited her to his home and called her his ideal Cio-Cio-San. In 1936 she returned to Japan in order to escape war in Europe. She was now an acclaimed international star and best known for her performance of Cio-Cio-San which she sang over 2,000 times in the course of her career. She died in 1946 at the age of sixty-three.
He was the son of an English merchant and a geisha. At the age of 20 he joined the Asakusa Opera. In Japan he did not have formal vocal training. It was only when he went to Italy and later to the United States that he becameprofessionally trained. He excelled in the light lyric roles of the Italian repertory. He sang such roles as Rodolfo, Pinkerton and the Duke in Rigoletto. His oriental appearance gave him an exotic charm when heappeared in the West. Upon returning to Japan his international reputation brought him fame in his own country. He was applauded as "warerano tenor" (our tenor). His voice was also well-suited for pop music and he became something of an early pop idol in Japan. On stage he cut a slim figure and possessed an attractively good appearance which made him a matinee idol. Yoshie Fujiwara may not have had the greatest tenor voice in the world but he sang with conviction and with tremendous passion that moved everyone around him.
In 1930 at the age of 32 he made his first operatic appearance in Japan in the role of Alfredo in La Traviata. He then returned to Italy to study opera in greater earnest. When he finally returned to Japan he decided to organizehis own company which he named after himself. The opera company met with great success and still functions today and attracts artists from all over the world. His impact on the growth and development of Japanese opera remains an unchallenged legacy even today.
c. TEIKO KIWA (1902- 1983)
Although she was considered Japanese in Europe due to her name, Teiko was actually half-Dutch. Her real name was Laetitia Klingen but sheperformed under the stage name Teiko Kiwa. Her father was a prominent Dutch chemist and her mother was Japanese. She was born in Yokohama in 1902 and grew up there. Her thinking and mannerisms were totally Japanese.She went to Milan to study at the age of seventeen and at the age twenty she made her debut at the San Carlos Theater in Lisbon in the role of Madama Butterfly and was billed as a Japanese singer. She was fluent in several languages and had a beautiful coloratura whichfascinated the European audiences. She won immediate popularity and was called "The Japanese Duse", an allusion to the great Italian stage actress Eleonora Duse.
She married a Polish tenor, Rawita Proszewski, and sang most frequently in Poland. As with many sopranos born in Japan her most popular role was Madama Butterfly. In 1931 she celebrated her 700th performance in Helsinki in 1938. Unfortunately, she always wanted to give recitals in Japan but her husband was reluctant to let her go back to Japan, a country allied to Nazi, Germany. During the war she was forced to give up singing. After the war in 1945 she staged a comeback which was not successful. Her vocal cords had suffered from long disuse. She disappeared from the operatic stage and eventually people forgot about her. After retirement, Kiwa moved to Nice, France where she gave voice lessons. Her life was modest especially since her husband did not manage to save any of the vast amount of money earned at the peak of her career. She always longed to return to Japan but there was no-one there she knew. With no money and no family she passed away in nice in 1983 at the age of 80.
Following in this path of excellence a Japanese soprano this
year (1998) has won an international competition against seven
other finalists at the 11th Tchaikovsky music competition
in Moscow. Mieko Sato, who graduated from the Musashino Academy
of Music in Tokyo, was awarded first prize this year in the contest
held at the Bolshoi. This achievement underlines the high level
of vocal excellence produced by Japanese conservatories and vocal
Although Japan has firmly established the Western operatic tradition on its own shores, and she has also successfully produced singers who can carry on the vocal tradition, the question remains: What about operas written by Japanese composers? Has Japan been able to produce operatic masterpieces of international stature capable of holding their own worth on the international stage?
While it is true that Japan has yet to produce a Verdi, Wagner
or Puccini, it must be affirmed that she has kept alive the tradition
by works of substantial merit and worth. It can further be argued
that many of these works have been written in the past fifty years,
and new works are constantly being commissioned by new opera houses
which have been springing up across the country. Several works
have already been mentioned earlier in this essay but there are
significant modern works which have received special recognition
and deserve further comment.
This opera was composed by Yamada Kosaku, (Jan. 1886-Dec. 1965)
He was a pupil of Bruch and Wolf at Berlin Musikhochschule and
he conducted the first concert by a Japanese Western orchestra
in 1915. He produced a large output of operas, symphonic poems,
choral music and songs. He composed in a German romantic style
with Japanese inflections, laying down the foundation for modern
Japanese music in the European tradition.
After the 1930's Yamada's musical interest was turned chiefly
to opera and film music. In 1940 he composed the opera Yoake
(Dawn) which afterwards was re-titled Kurofune (The Black
Ships). For this effort he was awarded the Asahi Bunkai Sho (Asahi
Cultural Prize) in 1941.
This opera emerged from the dark clouds in the Unites States-Japan relationship which were featured in Puccini's Madama Butterfly. The work was a binational effort which ironically was premiered before the Great Pacific War.
In 1927 a young American, Percy Noel, penned a libretto for the story of Townsend Harris and his lover Okiku in Shimoda. Percy Noel managed to convince Yamada Koscak to compose the music. The task took a total of ten years to complete. Yoake premiered in 1940 just one year before the Pearl harbor Attack.
The score for Kurofune is very lyrical with generous
outbursts of melody reminiscent of German Romanticism. The influence
of Wagner and Strauss is evident in the orchestration. Noel had
the theory that there was no sexual relationship between Harris
and Okiku but that the story of an illicit affair was a bakufu
plot to ensnare the American consul. The libretto's intrigues
between the Shogunate bureaucracy and the restorationist samurai
undoubtedly cast light on the factional conflicts in the pre-war
Showa Ear and the rise of militarism.
Premiering soon after the war's end, in 1952, Ikuma Dan's Yuzuru (Twilight Heron) set the standard for use of the Japanese language and trraditional musical forms. Along with writers Yashishi Akutagawa and Toshiro Mayizumi, Dan was a member of the so-called "Three Men's Group," who tried to spark a revival of Japanese literature.
Yuzuru was based on a novel by Junji Kinoshita, which in turn was taken from a folktale. The story is of a heavenly spirit who descends to Earth in the form of a crane, is wounded by a hunter, and saved by a farmer. In the guise of a woman, Tsuu, she marries the farmer out of thanks and at night weaves a precious cloth of a thousand feathers.
But the husband is driven by a mercenary instinct (which led to the war and m which Dan correctly feared, would revive afterwards.) avarice is stressed by the insistent refrain, "nambyaku ryo (a hundred ryo)." The self-sacrificing bride is pushed to produce until all her feathers are gone. Forced to drop her human guise, she ascends skyward.
Though some of the orchestration is saccharine sweet, the total effect does evoke the naïve, isolated and timeless setting of the Snow Country. Between the haunting arias for soprano reminiscent of Richard Strauss' lieder, Dan interjected Japanese children's rhythms and folk songs into the score. The role of Tsuu has been a showcase for Japan's leading sopranos, including Nobuko Hara, Harue Miyake and Michiko Sunahara. Kiyoko Ito tops the list with her recording with the Yomiuri Nippon Symphonic Orchestra in the mid-1970's.
Kinkakuji can be considered a unique milestone in Japanese opera. It was based on a novel which in turn was based on an historical incident. The composer was Japanese but ironically the opera was set to a German libretto. It was recently revived in New York to an English translation by Christopher Keene
and has been performed in German at the opera House in Osaka. A Japanese translation and performance of the work remains unfortunately distant because the flow of the melody adapted to the German language does not suit the intonations of the Japanese language.
Yet, it is uniquely Japanese in both theme and musical idiom. The history of the opera is also of interest. The composer, Toshiro Mayuzumi, came to national attention in 1953 as one of the San-nin no Kai. The other two composers were Dan Ikuma and Yasushi Akutagawa. These three men sought to bridge post-war Japan's social realities with Japanese literary and musical traditions.
Mayuzumi's music has incorporated Buddhist and traditional Japanese themes and he was commissioned by George Balanchine of the New York City Ballet to compose the dance piece, Bugaku. His association with the West was intensified with the composition of the music for the soundtrack to John Houston's The Bible.
The opera, Kinkakuji, based on a novel by Mishima, was commissioned by the Berlin Deutsche Oper and the first performance in 1976 was in German.
A significant revival of the opera occurred in October 1995 in America at the New York City Opera. For the revival the opera was performed in English. The translation was by Christopher Keene who had been interested in the work since its premier. Critics have observed that Kinkakuji perhaps would have done better if I were written in a more traditional Japanese style. The feeling is that the music suffers from too much imitation of Western musical idioms. Yet, there are those who feel that composer Mayuzumi has incorporated Japanese Buddhistic music into a work which is uniquely original. The work remains controversial. Kinkakuji is a flawed but necessary first step in an evolutionary process.
It should be noted that in composing their operas the Japanese have gone back to their great legends, myths and national literature for inspiration. In this sense, operas composed by Japanese composers have striven towards an national identity rather than an imitation. Verdi and Puccini often went outside of their literary tradition for inspiration. Butterfly could hardly be considered an Italian theme and Verdi's Shakespearean masterworks took him to Cyprus, Scotland and England. But, Japanese composers, (very much like their Russian counterparts) turned to their our culture for thematic inspiration.
Although it has been argued that the Japanese operatic compositions have been strongly influenced by western music and especially the music of the German Romanticists as found in Wagner and Strauss, it must also be argued that the Japanese have brought to their compositions elements which are purely Japanese. The flow of the melody reflects the intonation of the Japanese language in much the same way that Janacek turned to the inflections of the Slavic language for the source of his melodies. (Kinkakuji being a notable exception)
Although the body of Japanese operas has not made a successful impact upon the European and American theater, the fault lies not so much in the intrinsic merit of the music but in the difficulty of mastering the Japanese style. Of course, these operas can be performed in translation, but they would suffer the same distortion forced upon a Janacek opera in English.
The Japanese have been noted (even notoriously so) of taking western ideas and artistic form and of adding something uniquely Japanese to the result. It is not a matter of imitation and can hardly be called flattery. Rather, it is the evolution of an art form into something unique, distinct and original. Japanese opera deserves to be recognized, performed and recorded for the unique contribution that it is to the world of music.
WEBSITES FOR JAPANESE
This is the official website for the new National Theater in Tokyo.
It is an extensive website which contains a schedule of all opera
performances at the theater.
This is an extensive opera website. It contains lists of performances
throughout the world. Of special importance is a list of opera performances
which are featured in Nagoya, Otsu, Tokyo and Yokohama.
Tokyo, 1983. Page 76.
The Daily Yomiuri. July 2,1998. Page 3.
4. Omura, Koji. Opera Draws Inspiration From India's Tree Huggers.
The Daily Yomiuri. May 12,1998. Page 11.
5. Omura,Koji. Opera City is Answer to Takemitsu's Prayer. The Daily
Yomiuri. October 14,1997. Page 15.
6. Shimatsu, Yoichi. Opera In Japan. Japan Times Weekly. Oct.3,1993.
Vol.33. No.43 , page 8.
7. Shimatsu, Yumiko. Waiting in the Wings. Japan Times Weekly.
Oct. 3,1993. Vol.33, No.43. page 10.
8. Shimatsu, Yoichi. The Golden Temple. Japan Times Weekly. Oct. 28,1995.
Vol.35. No. 43. Page 10.
9. Volpi, Vittorio. L'Nazione. "Correra
Della Sera." Jan, 1998.
10. Waterhouse, David. Western Music in Japan. Kodansha Encyclopedia
of Japan. Vol. 5. Tokyo,1983. page 287.
11. Zako, Jun. International Tenor: Ichihara Taro. Japan Quarterly. Vol. 36,
No. 1, pages 92-94. (Jan.-Mar. 1989).
12. Zako, Jun. A Nation Of Mozart Lovers. Japan Quarterly. Vol. 33. No. 3,
pages 299. (July.-Aug. 1986).