Blending Eastern and Western influences: Opera in Japan during the Meiji Restoration

November 18, 2023 0 Comments

Opera in Japan

During the time of Meiji Restoration when Japan opened up to foreign trade, culture and ideas opera gained a foothold. Traveling opera companies brought performances like Madama Butterfly featuring Geraldine Farrar, Enrico Caruso and Antonio Scotti to Japanese audiences.

While it is true that the art form is looked upon as western import, it cannot be denied that the music has been kept alive by a number of works which have substantial merit and worth.

Origins

Opera is a genre of music that blends the elements of drama and acting. Its popularity exploded during the Romantic era (1830-1900) when grand operas got bigger, louder and longer with more elaborate ornamentation bolstered by simpler harmonic structures.

Travelling western opera companies began visiting Japan in the early days of the Meiji Restoration when Japan opened up to outside influence, culture and ideas. One amateur group from Yokohama staged a production of Arthur Sullivan’s operetta Cox and Box just four years after its London premier.

Puccini spied the operatic potential in David Belasco’s one-act play Madame Butterfly based on John Luther Long’s 1898 short story and worked with libretto writers Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa to produce an Italian version of the work which premiered in Milan in 1904. The opera was to become an emblem of the dark clouds of US-Japanese relations just a year before Pearl Harbor.

Influence

In addition to the renowned Bunka-Keikan and NHK Hall, Tokyo also has many theaters which stage opera, and it is possible to see productions by visiting companies from Europe and North America. Nevertheless, many directors do not try to bring traditional Japanese cultural elements into their opera adaptations. Rather, they prioritize the creation of an aesthetically coherent whole.

Nonetheless, there are some examples of opera borrowings and adaptations within the Takarazuka Revue. For example, the Kimura-Kai team’s productions Freedom: Mister Carmen and Fumetsu no toge, based on Vec Makropulos, reversed the gender roles of the original opera. This was intended to create a character that appealed to the female audience and to showcase otokoyaku sex appeal.

Despite this, much research remains to be done on the links between the Takarazuka Revue and opera. This includes the impact of gender roles and singing styles on the Revue, as well as the extent to which the Revue borrows or adapts opera music.

Repertoire

During the 1950s a second wave of opera adaptations emerged from Takarazuka Revue musicals. These were usually based on the plots of western operas but with a new twist. The top otokoyaku would play the heroine, rather than the male lead as is traditional in the west. The Takarazuka team created such musicals as Turandot: Hououden no bouken (1952), Gekijou: Jose to Carmen (1951) and the 1956 Kismet: Unmei.

The music for these operas was composed by Yamada Kosaku who had been a pupil of Bruch and Wolf in Berlin. He infused the melodic style of German Romanticism with Japanese inflections. This laid down the foundation for modern Japanese opera. It also paved the way for a more realistic approach to the melodrama of kabuki and sanken opera. Today Tokyo has many venues where opera is performed, although there is no resident company. It is a form which thrives as Japan continues to open up more fully to western influence, ideas and music.

Performances

When Japan opened its doors to western technology during the Meiji Period, it also welcomed foreign arts. One of these was opera which became a popular form of entertainment. The Japanese studied, imitated and eventually produced their own classical genre of opera.

The result is a hybrid of eastern and western ideas and themes. Though many have criticized this as merely a form of imitation, it can be viewed as the evolution of an art into something uniquely its own.

This season at Japan Society we present the North American Premiere of Catapult Opera’s reimagining of Yukio Mishima’s modern noh play Hanjo (September 14) and NYC-based director NJ Agwuna’s gender-swapped drama I’m Trying to Understand You, But…(October 28 – 30). Plus 2022 marks the world premiere of a new opera commissioned by Japan Society, note to a friend(January 12 – 15), composed by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang who reimagined texts from esteemed writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa whose short stories are famous for their eloquent exploration of human relationships and death.

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