Opera in Japan
While Japan has yet to produce a Verdi, Wagner or Puccini it can be said that it has kept alive the operatic tradition with works of merit and worth. The country also boasts singers with an international reputation.
Recently a new National Theater opened featuring the nations first State Opera House. The new theater includes a college opera company which trains young artists for professional careers.
During the Meiji Restoration when Japan opened to western trade and culture, opera began to make its appearance in Japan. Traveling companies specializing in European musical theater began to visit the country in the early days of the Meiji period with Yokohama being the main center for this cultural activity.
Puccini’s Madama Butterfly has to be considered as one of the most iconic examples of Orientalism in modern times but it must also be remembered as a work that brought forth an empathetic instinct within humankind. It is for this reason that it is still performed today to great acclaim around the world.
Several years later Yamada Kosaku composed a work called Kinkakuji which had religious themes. This is a significant work in that it laid the groundwork for Japanese music being influenced by Western musical styles. After this Yamada focused mainly on the composition of operas and symphonic poems utilizing a European style. He was a pupil of Bruch and Wolf at the Berlin Musikhochschule.
As the Takarazuka Revue developed, intellectuals sought to create a Japanese form of opera. While the earliest attempt, Roei no Yume by Sueharu Kitamura, was an oratorio the more successful effort was Kinkakuji composed by Dan Mayuzumi in 1953. It incorporates Buddhist and traditional Japanese themes in its music while using Western musical idioms.
Although influenced by the European tradition (Dan was a pupil of Bruch and Wolf at Berlin Musikhochschule) he tried to bridge Japan’s social realities with its literary and musical traditions. He also wanted to make his music sound “natural” in the sense that the intonations of the language matched the melody.
He infused his operas with Japanese folk songs and a neo-classical style. His singers went on to gain international acclaim. Muira Yamamoto became a symbol of the nation as she sang Cio-Cio-San on stages in the United States, Europe and South America. The same was true of Hanafusa Mari, who toured the world as Puccini’s Butterfly.
The most successful Japanese operas take western ideas and artistic forms and add something of their own to produce a style that is uniquely Japanese. The result is not a form of cultural flattery, but rather an assimilation of the best elements from both cultures.
Madama Butterfly is a good example of this phenomenon. The work is set in an era marked by industrialization, social change and new trends in philosophy and psychology. It satisfies modernist themes by presenting a culture clash and by exploring the character’s tragic disillusionment.
Puccini adapted traditional Japanese folk melodies into his score for the work. He did this through a process of transcription and analysis that involved listening to recordings shipped to him from Japan. In addition, he invented his own sonic image of Japan by using musical idioms that he identified as typical of the country. He also utilized the music of geisha and maiko — apprentice geisha — to create a feeling of authenticity in the opera.
When you think of traditional Japanese classical arts, kabuki and bunraku come to mind. However, opera is often overlooked as a contribution to Japanese culture and art. This may be due to the fact that it was largely imported into Japan in the form of translated western operas from the Meiji and Taisho eras.
With the opening of the New National Theatre in 1997, opera in Japan is taking on a new identity as a local art form. Many young Japanese singers are now making their debuts on the international stage, including soprano Michie Nakamaru, who captivates audiences with her beauty and commitment in roles such as Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s Tosca.
Another prominent singer is tenor Taro Ichihara, who has performed extensively around the world in Verdi roles. Another rising star is Masafumi Akikawa, whose voice has been praised for its clarity and musicality. He has also been lauded for his ability to convey the emotion of the arias.