Mention “Die Soldaten,” B.A. Zimmermann’s dark, uncompromising and harrowing work of 1960s modernism, and Hiroshi Wakasugi visibly brightens. It’s the first season for this highly respected conductor as artistic director of Tokyo’s New National Theater, and he’s clearly very, very pleased that he has managed to get the opera onto the NNT stage next May.
In fact, it’s a minor miracle, and a testament to Wakasugi’s powers of persuasion and his standing in the Japanese classical music community. Though a landmark of postwar opera, “Die Soldaten” probably won’t have audiences flocking to the theater, and the logistic requirements — a more than 100-piece orchestra, augmented by pre-recorded music and electronic sounds, together with 16 singing roles and 10 speaking roles and a mind-bogglingly complex mise-en-scene — border on the nightmarish.
“Perhaps it was too avant-garde a choice,” says Wakasugi, who will conduct the production himself, although the smile playing about his lips shows he is quite unrepentant. “But it’s an important work. People need to have the chance to see it.”
Despite his enthusiasm for challenging postwar classical music, however, when it comes to his productions the 72-year-old concedes with a hint of irony, “I am, I think, a traditional person.” This is, after all, a man of the opera establishment who studied under iconic conductor Hideo Saito (who also taught Seiji Ozawa), and went on to build enduring relationships with some of Japan’s premier orchestras, such as the NHK Symphony Orchestra, the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra and Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. A passionate advocate of contemporary music, he led an award-winning production of Penderecki’s “St Luke’s Passion” in 1968.
The 1970s and ’80s saw him highly active in Germany, leading the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra and conducting the celebrated Staatskapelle Dresden. While there, he worked extensively in opera, notably in Dusseldorf and at the historic Semperoper Dresden, the theater that premiered so many works by Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner and is so steeped in the German romantic operatic tradition. Back in Japan he continued his operatic work, as artistic director of the Biwako Opera Theater and Tokyo Chamber Opera.
Wakasugi’s experience both within Japan and abroad clearly came to the attention of the NNT, which, 10 years ago, as it was preparing to open its sleekly designed doors at Hatsudai, invited him to be their opera division’s artistic director. It took him eight years to say yes.
“They did offer it to me, but I wasn’t ready. I felt I didn’t have enough experience,” he starts somewhat disingenuously. “Now I do.”
As artistic director, he is required to choose the works that are staged each year and to work closely with directors on new productions.
What does he feel he can bring to the post? “I have many ideas,” he says, “but I don’t want to make great changes. The theater is still young. It’s a baby. So many of the great classics of the opera repertoire have yet to be performed here. I think it’s my duty to see that the basic repertoire is performed.”
A quick glance at the remainder of the 2007/8 season shows that he is true to his word, filled as it is with the perennial favorites: Bizet’s “Carmen” and Richard Strauss’ “Salome” and “Ariadne auf Naxos,” as well as Puccini’s “La Boheme,” Verdi’s “La Traviata” and “Aida” and Weber’s “Der Freischutz.”
October’s opening of the 2007/8 season with a lavish “Tannhauser,” quickly followed by Mozart’s “Le Nozze de Figaro,” announced the beginning of his term as artistic director, after two years at the NTT as artistic consultant. Asked about his feelings on assuming the post, he answers wryly, “Ah, 50-50. Of course, I’m happy because I get to put on operas like ‘Die Soldaten.’ And it’s a wonderful theater. But then there’s the bureaucracy. That can be hard to bear.”
Many would agree. The government-subsidized theater has a reputation for being strangled in red tape. It certainly brought Wakasugi’s predecessor — and the first non-Japanese artistic director of the NNT — Austrian Thomas Novohradsky, to grief. The wounds from his clashes over the question of double casting are still healing even now.
Previously, the NNT had always had a system of two alternating casts for each opera, one consisting mostly of non-Japanese singers and the other of Japanese singers. Novohradsky, the former director of the Vienna State Opera, claimed that this system was financially prohibitive as well as a waste of rehearsal time, and he abolished it, to the fury of many. Claims were made by the Foundation of Japan Opera Association, which represents performers, that Novohradsky was not doing enough to promote Japanese singers. Many organizations urged musicians to boycott the institution.
Wakasugi’s appointment may have been a largely conciliatory measure after Novohradsky, but he supports his predecessor on the double-casting issue. “It does mean there are less chances for Japanese singers,” he says. “On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for a single cast. But I want to mix Japanese singers with non-Japanese singers. We’ve done this with ‘La Boheme.’ Mimi is sung by Maria Bayo, Rodolfo by Shigehiro Sano.”
This may be a wily move on the part of Wakasugi. Presented with a foreign cast and a Japanese cast, Japanese audiences will almost inevitably drift toward the foreign in the belief, often mistaken, that they are superior.
“Yes, the audience wants to hear European or American soloists,” Wakasugi says, “and if they see Japanese musicians in the program, they think it’s, well, cheap and that the standards are lower. It’s a terrible attitude. We need to encourage the public to change their minds. We need them to notice Japanese soloists and show them that they are just as good as European singers.”
Wakasugi is eager to promote contemporary Japanese opera too. The NNT has traditionally showcased one Japanese opera a year, with past productions including “To Die for Love” by Miki Minoru and “Narukami/Shukan” by Shimizu Osamu.
This season, in May, it’s one of Japan’s first and most famous grand operas, “Kurofune — Yoake” or “The Black Ships” by early 20th -century composer Kosaku Yamada, the story of the affair between the geisha Okichi and American consul Townsend Harris at the time of the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 1860s. “It is very Japanese, using traditional Japanese instruments and folk song as it does, but it’s seasoned with a pinch of Richard Strauss,” Wakasugi says. He would be delighted to see further productions of contemporary Japanese opera at the NNT, although his views on the works of the last 60 years are grim.
“The problem with Japanese operas is that although many first-class composers have tried writing opera, more often than not it’s to a third-class libretto,” he says. “In most cases, the librettist hasn’t understood the art of writing for opera. He might be able to write for the stage or for kabuki, but he doesn’t know how to write for music. They have to learn more about opera.” He singles out the quartet from Verdi’s “Rigoletto” as a reference point for budding librettists, a moment when four characters sing of their own separate conflicting emotions simultaneously.
Wakasugi repeatedly returns to his point about performing the staple repertoire of European and American opera houses. He does not see it as a conservative decision, or as bowing to commercial pressure, but rather the opposite: For him, it’s an exciting proposition because it brings opera back to its popular roots. Also, famous works reach out to larger audiences, many of whom might be unfamiliar with opera.
“There are so many people who haven’t seen an opera in the theater,” Wakasugi says. “They think it’s above them. It isn’t. Going to opera isn’t like going to church.” He appeals to people not to be awed by the form, to shed their preconceptions of opera as intimidating, elitist and irrelevant and to give it a go “on their own terms.” And if they enjoy it they will come back, he says.
Wakasugi does concede that ticket prices can be a major obstacle, especially for younger audiences. An average seat at the NNT costs at least ¥10,000, with the best seats priced at over ¥20,000. The NNT already has a program of performances for young children and high-school students, but this year, starting from “Tannhauser,” Wakasugi launched an initiative where students can sit in on dress rehearsals for free. It has been, he says, a great success.
Opera houses abroad have also been attempting to attract younger audiences with more experimental, less hidebound productions that strive to blow the dust off opera and make it more relevant to the present. It’s certainly the case in Europe, where directors are given roles of growing importance and prominence, striving to put their own individual stamp on each production. Critics have, however, been quick to point out a trend toward the cheaply sensational, productions that aim to shock audiences by bringing sex, violence, drugs and nudity onto the operatic stage. Acts of group rape that had nothing to do with the story in an English National Opera production of Verdi’s “Masked Ball,” and a prostitute slicing off her nipples in Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio” at the Berlin Komische Oper, are two recent examples that are often cited by outraged purists. What does Wakasugi make of all this?
“All I want to do is create memorable productions,” Wakasugi says, “and I don’t think that to do this you have to have the experimental productions that you now see in Europe. At the same time I think it would be doing audiences a disservice to ignore this trend.
“I’m not so fond of this ‘new wave’ of productions, the sort where more often than not, you are so caught up with what is happening on stage and how the opera will be presented next that you don’t listen to the music. At the same time, you can’t have opera turn into a kind of museum exhibit. We need new blood injected into the classics.”
“Carmen” sung in French with Japanese surtitles runs Nov. 25-Dec. 9 at the Opera House, New National Theatre Tokyo (tickets ¥1,500-¥23,100).