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Rise of a Second Operatic Culture

August 17, 2000

Above and below: Scenes from the opera Orfeo ed Euridice presented by the New National Theatre Tokyo. (Chikashi Saegusa)

The popularity of opera in Japan was ignited in the late 1980s during the years of the bubble economy, when a large number of dazzling productions featuring famous foreign opera singers were staged. Though the expansionary phase has long since ended, performances continue and the art remains as popular as ever. In fact, a new subgenre known as "small-theater opera" has even begun to take root.

The Advantages of Simplicity
Most Japanese associate opera with grandiose costumes and extravagant, large-scale stage settings. In Austria, Britain, Germany, Italy, and other Western countries with a rich dramatic tradition, however, performances in small theaters incorporating chamber theater methods are not at all unusual. Such productions keep costumes and stage settings to a minimum and seek to convey the essence of the musical drama through the singers' movements and songs. Small-theater operas use far fewer contrivances than their large-scale counterparts, yet their simplicity can be an advantage; psychodramatic and experimental methods can be employed to enthrall the audience and create an intimate bond between the performers and viewers. Consequently, small-theater opera demands a high level of skill on the part of the singers. At the same time, it provides an ideal venue in which performers can brush up on their skills.

Japan's government-run theater, New National Theatre Tokyo, recently put on a series of little-known works at its small theater, thereby moving away from its longstanding bias toward grand operas staged at its large theater. Behind the move was a desire to promote small-theater productions as a second operatic culture and ultimately bolster the popularity of opera as a whole.

In spring 2000, the privately run opera company Tokyo Chamber Opera Theatre staged Emilio de' Cavalieri's La Rappresentazione di Anima e di Corpo and Jacopo Peri's Euridice on alternate days at the New National Theatre Tokyo's small theater as the first joint production with the New National Theatre Foundation. La Rappresentazione featured costumes and settings evocative of contemporary Japan, while Euridice employed a classical aesthetic style with Greek-style costumes. The performers commented that they wanted to make effective use of the space of the small theater and expressed their hope that the productions would trigger a reexamination of opera. The stagings, though simple, made it possible to view the movements and expressions of the singers without opera glasses and imparted a strength to the songs not possible in large theaters, winning them favorable reviews.

At the end of June 2000, Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice was staged as part of another "small-theater series" sponsored by the New National Theatre Tokyo. Tickets cost only 4,200 yen (38.20 U.S. dollars at 110 yen to the dollar), a fraction of that for grand operas. The small-theater series productions were so popular that tickets sold out just 30 minutes after they went on sale. In September, furthermore, another opera--Gioachino Rossini's L'Inganno Felice--will be presented, with tickets available at the same price.

Taking Root in Japan
This is not the first time small-theater performances have been staged in Japan. However, because of the difficulties encountered in finding time and a place for the singers to rehearse, as well as the high costs of renting a stage, the practice did not take hold. Opera fans, for their part, expected productions to be a costly form of European entertainment and were not interested in modest small theater stagings.

During the years of the speculative bubbles, famous foreign opera companies and singers were paid generous sums to come to Japan, and the public was provided ample opportunities to see top-rate foreign operas, albeit at a high price. Thanks to this, Japanese opera goers grew more discerning in their tastes. This may be one of the few positive effects of the bubble economy.

Though the bubbles have been punctured, the opera boom continues. At the same time, a growing number of people are discovering that the allure of the art can often be found in stagings other than the glorified masterpieces.

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Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2000 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.