Asahi Shimbun: Tokyo 2019

(Around Stage) Creative form of sight-specific opera – tradition underlying the unconventional

Review in the Asahi Newspaper, 1st August 2019

By Junko Yoshida

“The Key”, an opera based on the novel by Junichiro Tanizaki will be performed at a contemporary opera festival in the United Kingdom this month. This mysterious, psychological drama is told through journals intended to be peeked into, and the story weaves between four characters; a married couple whose passion is inflamed by jealousy, their daughter and the lover. 

I attended the premiere last year as well as the revival performance in May this year, both in Tokyo. The venues, Nakacho House in Adachi-ku and Denchu Hirakushi House and Atelier in Taito-ku are both old-style Japanese houses that are hidden in residential areas.

The music was composed by Francesca Le Lohé (29), an outstanding British talent who studied at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Captivated by the sound of traditional Japanese musical instruments, she came to study in Japan. Her long-held dream to adapt Tanizaki’s novel into a musical drama, along with her wish to collaborate with various young Japanese artists, drove her to establish “The Key” project.  Naoya Yamashita, her friend at the Tokyo University of the Arts, Graduate School of Global Arts took on the production planning. Akane Kudo (soprano), Takashi Matsudaira (baritone) and other professional contemporary musicians also joined the team.

The characters deliver monologues simultaneously, as the layered sound of Western and Japanese instruments permeates the gloomy space. There is no conductor. Whilst sensing each other’s desires, the characters feel their way through their performances, just like in the original novel.

The wife (soprano) inhabits a room with the Japanese sho and cello. Shakuhachi and double bass accompany the husband (baritone) in another room. The daughter (mezzo-soprano) has kotsuzumi, shime-daiko and violin in her room, and the lover is performed by a contemporary dancer accompanied by biwa and clarinet. The audience moves freely in and out of each of the rooms which are loosely separated by hallways and paper sliding doors.
There was an audience member who had to turn around as he bumped into the husband coming downstairs. Everything, including such happenings becomes part of the performance. Unexpected encounters between the performers who live in the “fictional world” and the audience who witness them from the “real world” often cause twists in the staging.

A rather relaxed after-show talk was held with the performers and approximately 30 audience members and the performers. Mr. Peter Macmillan, translator and poet who has profound knowledge of Japanese culture, shared his impression: “I did not feel any differentiation between Japanese and Western sound. The sounds that match each character were chosen not for theoretical reasons, but with a natural sensibility”,  which many of the audience members seemed to agree with.

Experiencing such intimate communication, usually impossible in large, conventional theatres, made me wonder if the beginnings of opera were like this, when the pursuit of a renaissance of ancient Greek theatre gave birth to the artform.

Operas in the 19th century were often based on the actual cases of adultery and murders. They were, in a way, gossip articles before the time of newspapers, an infotainment programme before the era of television. Opera, under the disguise of being the ultimate comprehensive art form, also served as a window to peep into people’s hidden lives.  

Such thoughts were evoked by this – what could be called – “traditional house opera”.  Despite its unconventional surface, all the concepts of this piece, from the arrangement of space to the choice of musical instruments, naturally pertained to the novel’s ambiance and the traditions of musical drama. The fresh sensitivity of the new generation traversed borders to create an unprecedented form of performance. This is the timeless way creation should happen.

(English translation: Yuki Sato)