August 20, 2013 by IPAlchemist
The highlight of my visit to Japan was a trip to the newly rebuilt Kabuki-za in Ginza, where I was kindly taken by my former Japanese teacher Emiko.
I have no pictures, so I am going to have to use words to paint the scene. Bear with me, dear readers.
The Kabuki-za puts on three performances a day, and each performance consists of two plays separated by an interval. Emiko had recommended that we go and see the first performance of the day, which featured two very different pieces – Nozaki-mura (Nozaki Village) and Shunkyo Kagami Jishi (Young Yayoi and the Spirit of the Lion). The style of the two plays is completely different, making the experience a wonderful introduction to Kabuki. I have never before seen Kabuki in Japan, although I did go twice to see Ebizo Ichikawa XI perform at Sadler’s Wells a few years ago (featuring a performance of Fujimusume – “Wisteria maiden”, and another play Kasane). But neither piece at the Kabuki-za was at all like anything that I saw then – there being many strands of the Kabuki tradition and the experience of each one being (to me at least) quite distinct.
Emiko had been keen that I see the famous Kabuki actor Kankuro Nakamura perform the lion dance in the second piece. His brother Shichinosuke would take over the part from the day after we went. But the same Shichinosuke performed one of the main onagata (man playing female) roles in the first piece.
Do follow the above links for synopses of the two plays – I won’t repeat here. Suffice to say for present purposes that Nozaki-mura originated as a bunraku (puppet theatre) performance and therefore is accompanied by the same shamisen and chanting performers as bunraku is. It features a love triangle with a (to my mind rather pathetic and selfish) man (called Hisamatsu) being engaged to a girl (Omitsu) to whose family he is indebted, while being in love with his boss’s daughter (Osome, who turns out to be pregnant with his child).
I was utterly transfixed by both Osome and Omitsu for completely different reasons. Osome (played by Shichinosuke) was absolutely stunning – when she appeared on the hanamichi wearing a gorgeous purple kimono, the whole audience literally gasped. Omitsu is portrayed as plainer, as the plot requires, but I was captivated by her deft and agile movements, for example as she practised applying makeup, and as she chopped a daikon. She was so expressive as well, in particular as she showed her displeasure at the unwelcome arrival of her love rival.
I was also very struck by the fact that the most bawdy comic part of the piece, namely the banter between two palanquin bearers, occurs precisely at the most emotion-laden scene, and not separated from it. I think Shakespearean tragedy employs similar juxtaposition of the tragic and the comic for heightened effect of the emotional intensity.
There is a lot less going on in the second piece in terms of plot, and really the play seems to be about the presentation of some set piece dances. The musical style is completely different and is called “nagauta“, featuring a large musical ensemble of shamisens, drums, flutes, and chanters, all in stiff formal dress. A dancing maiden becomes possessed by the spirit of a lion god, and so reappears in a fantastical outfit with a mane-like hair which at the back is almost full-body length. The movements of the lion contrast sharply with two butterfly dancers (played by two young men) who generally flap about while the lion is doing his thing. I don’t think that you need to be any particular kabuki expert to really enjoy the beauty of this kind of performance.
Kabuki has a reputation of being inaccessible, but, particularly with the excellent English in-ear commentary, I did not find it at all hard to follow what was going on, and to feel an appreciation of the extraordinary talents and abilities of the performers, as well as a very human response to the characters in the first, more narrative, piece. I am sure that there will have been layers of subtlety that I missed, but I would really encourage anyone to go and experience this wonderful art form for themselves if they get a chance.
Emiko, who is an expert on Japanese Noh drama, informed me that the lion dance piece is also performed in the Noh tradition, but that “in Noh, we do it with masks”. I love “we do it with masks” as the distilled quintessence of the distinction between the earlier, more formal, Noh theatre, and the later Kabuki tradition. (For my feelings about Noh, which I also love, see my earlier post here.)
I shall definitely be looking out for the next opportunity to see any Kabuki drama, whether in Europe or in Japan.
April 7, 2013 by IPAlchemist
Last night I went to see a performance at the King’s Head Theatre of Quasimodo, a musical by Lionel Bart (of Oliver! fame), not quite finished and never performed before this run. As might be expected from the title, the story is based on Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. One is always nervous about revived or newly discovered pieces – there is often a reason for their neglect – but this was great. Fantastic hummable tunes and emotion-stirring harmonies. The musical was revived and directed by my friend Robert Chevara and had an amazing cast – every single one gave an astonishingly good performance, with first-class singing, acting, and movement. It is not on for much longer, so do get to see it if you can.
There was a lot for the lover of language as well.
First, the viewer is informed that Quasimodo is named for Quasimodo Sunday, otherwise known as Low Sunday, which, as luck would have it, is actually today. It is the Sunday after Easter and the name come from the introit for the day: Quasi modo geniti infantes “as newborn babes” (1 Pet. ii:2). According to the story, Quasimodo was found as an abandoned infant on that day, and thusly named.
The other thing is that the musical contains what could just possibly be my favourite rhyming couplet. Introducing Esmeralda to the bells of Notre Dame, Quasimodo sings the lines:
They cannot wait
It is probably helped by the fact that the word was delivered perfectly , with a knowing pause to signify to the audience that the performer knew the absurdity of this character delivering such an improbable word – absolutely glorious. (Here I am getting annoyed that spellchecker does not like “tintinnabulate”.)
So dear readers, this got me thinking. An early blogpost of the IPAlchemist invited submission of favourite words. We haev probably gone as far as we can with that for the time being. Now my question is – what is your favourite rhyming couplet? From any work, including one that you made up yourself. In honour of Quasimodo I will invite responses during Eastertide. So I will do a roundup around Pentecost.
Submit by comment, Twitter or email. Over to you!
September 24, 2012 by IPAlchemist
A few weeks ago I went to a very special performance – one of those events that makes you glad that you live in London, because the number of cities in the world where this is likely to happen are rather limited.
Tokyo University of the Arts decided to come to England to put on Benjamin Britten’s piece Curlew River, preceded by the Noh play upon which it is based, Sumidagawa.
Even better for those of a geeky disposition, the Daiwa Foundation, to which my colleague Stephen Scott had just introduced me (he went to Japan as a scholar of the Daiwa Foundation), organised a lecture by two fascinating people: the Noh actor, Professor Sekine, who played the shite part, and Dr Mukai, a lecturer at the University.
Professor Sekine is a leading performer of the Kanze school of Noh (one of four extant schools, and the largest). He is a living national treasure, and a Professor at Tokyo University of the Arts. Noh plays are always written to have one leading part, called the “shite” (in this case the madwoman), which he played in the performance, and one main supporting part, the “waki” (in this case the ferryman). He explained about the history of Noh, the philosophy of the performance, and some basic meanings of some of the movements and gestures.
Dr Mukai is a specialist on Britten, and he gave fascinating insights into how Curlew River had developed, including the itinerary of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears when they visited Japan in 1956. It seems that they saw not one, but two performances of Sumidagawa whilst they were there.
It was fascinating to learn that, although the dramatic style and form of the Curlew River are drawn from the feeling of the Noh play, the actual music is based not so much on Noh music but on Japanese Gagaku music. This is a court music, which uses different instruments from Noh itself, and which Britten and Pears also heard when they were in Japan. In particular, Britten uses the chamber organ to allude to the sound of the Sho, which is a multi-piped wind instrument, which is used in Gagaku but not in Noh.
A few days later was the performance itself. This took place in the spectacular Spitalfields church, a Hawksmoor masterpiece which has been recently restored, and which I have passed many times, but never been into before.
The Noh play came first. I have experienced Noh before, because the father (Ohtsubo-sensei) of my Japanese teacher (Uemura-sensei) when I lived in Japan was a professional Noh actor, and I went to see him perform several times. Uemura-sensei had very kindly emailed me some information about the performance beforehand. Although her father Ohtsubo-sensei is from the Hosho School of Noh, whereas the performance here was from the Kanze School, the differences are not I think such that an novice like me would really notice.
Watching the piece, I felt the same as every time I see a Noh play a strange peacefulness and tranquillity of watching an art form which is clearly survived from ancient times (Sumidagawa was written in the early 1400s). The performing style is extremely minimalist, and, in one sense, very little happens. In another sense, you get the feeling that every single movement, however slight, is precisely planned and meaningful. Not that I felt most of the time that I could understand the meaning. Prof Sekine had indicated the meanings of some of the gestures, for example raising the hand to the face in order to indicate crying. But many remained deeply mysterious. But I can see just why Britten would have found the whole experience are amazing, and would want to have drawn upon it himself.
After a break, there was then the performance of Curlew River. Although this is a very English piece, the main singers were Japanese. Are very good they were too. I was particularly struck by Jun Suzuki, the tenor who plays the Madwoman. (Britten made the cast all-male, as is the case with most Noh performances, with men playing the women’s parts – this of course gave him the chance to give the leading part to Peter Pears).
I haven’t explained the story. The story of both pieces is basically the same: a Madwoman meets a Ferryman at a river, who tells her of the story of a boy who has died in the area a year ago, and the Madwoman then realises that this is her son who was kidnapped, and who she has travelled a long distance to find. She is distraught to realise that he has died. Both of the pieces seem to speak of the restorative power of a belief in the supernatural, whether buddhism or christianity. (Incidentally, Prof Sekine said that the woman is not “mad” but only as concerned as a mother would naturally be under the circumstances). Interestingly, Britten calls the piece a “Church Parable” not an opera or similar.
One of the live issues about Sumidagawa is whether the ghost of the dead boy appears. In some performances he does, in others only his voice is heard. Apparently in the Hosho school he usually would appear; in the performance we saw he (although actually it was played by a girl) remains concealed in the funeral mound, so only the voice appears. In Curlew River, the boy does appear physically. Either way round, I had goosebumps at this point in both performances.
I slightly blush that Curlew River was performed at New College, Oxford when I was a student there, and I didn’t go. I don’t quite remember why, but I think I may have thought I wouldn’t enjoy it. Actually, it is an amazing piece with incredible musical textures. So I’m now looking out for an opportunity to see it again. However, the side-by-side performance with the Noh play which inspired it is probably something that I am unlikely to come across again, so it is an experience that I shall treasure.
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