What? A centuries-old Japanese Noh-style drama performed with modern Western instruments and operatic voices and sung in German, no less? Well, for starters, it helps if you know something about the classic, tradition-bound Nipponese Noh-play. Among other basics, you should be aware that the actors are exclusively male, some appearing in drag and almost everybody wears weird masks. The delivery of the poetic lines is highly stylized: half-spoken-half-sung, and in distorted voice (it's not pretty). There's a chorus, and also some dancing. Musical accompaniment is from traditional Japanese instruments: the shakuhachi (Japanese flute) and the koto (a plucked string instrument), plus assorted drums. The plots almost always revolve around ghosts. Costumes and hand-props can be quite elaborate, but the sets tend to be rather spare, with only one or two primary objects in evidence. The floors are polished and slick, so that actors and dancers often seem to glide across them. Oh and the backdrop to the typical stage is usually a painting of a pine tree.
For most Westerners, it all adds up to massive culture shock, and it's definitely an acquired taste, something that's probably not going to appeal to your average American tourist visiting Tokyo. So, then, how to make the Noh tradition more palatable to Western audiences?
Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa has sought ways to do just that. After Friday evening's festival opener (and American premiere) performance at the Dock Street Theatre of Matsukaze, I do believe that he has succeeded, and wildly so. You should know that Hosokawa — having studied extensively in Germany (hence Hannah Dübgen's German libretto) — has found ways to straddle Eastern and Western traditions and to fuse fresh artistic syntheses that will appeal to folks at both ends of the cultural spectrum.
But before I get into how he managed his transformation, first a word about the rather simple plot. The opera is in a single act, divided into five scenes that flow seamlessly from one to the next. A prelude of sorts begins the piece, starting with prerecorded watery wave-sounds appropriate to the scenario: a beach on the coast of Suma (near the city of Kobe) in Japan. In "Sea" (scene I), a monk on a pilgrimage arrives at the beach, and notices a pine tree with a plaque, upon which is inscribed a poem and the names of two women: Matsukaze (Wind in the Pines) and her sister Murasame (Autumn Rain). A local fisherman tells him the centuries-old tale of their lives as lowly salt women — and of their lover Yukihira, a nobleman from a nearby city. After three years of apparent romantic bliss, he is called back to the city, where he sickens and dies, leaving the sisters bereft and driven into madness. The apparition of a salt house appears, and the monk falls asleep next to it. In "Salt," (II), the sisters' ghosts appear, exhausted from their salt collecting. In "Night" (III), the monk awakens and asks the women to let him stay the night in the salt house. The wind reminds them of their lost lover, and — as they sing of him amid weeping and growing agitation — the monk realizes they are ghosts. In "Dance" (IV), Matsukaze retrieves Yukihira's hat and cloak that he had left behind, and — in her madness — mistakes the pine tree for her lover; Murasame attempts to console her before succumbing to wretched madness herself. They dance in an agonized imagined reunion, their wailing blending with the sounds of wind and rain. With "Dawn" (V), the monk awakens, finding the women and their salt house gone.
Hosokawa is quoted in The New York Times as saying, "I wanted to create Noh theater completely anew. Noh, the way one sees it today, is actually rather boring. It has become a kind of museum piece, performed for too long without change."
So, change it he did. Here, Hosokawa dispenses with masks altogether, as well as the all-male cast. The strange-sounding vocal delivery now has become actual operatic singing, though some of the unique inflections and other Noh-style characteristics remain (like semi-sung "Sprechstimme" passages). A small modern orchestra replaces the traditional instruments: flute and harp evoke the shakuhachi and koto, and we hear a good-sized battery of modern percussion instruments. Assorted brass and woodwind instruments add novel sonorities. Then there's a handful of stringed instruments, playing mostly in softly keening glissandos that provide eerie, intersecting "threads" of wispy sound as they rise and fall to incredibly spooky effect. The net impression, when all the strings got going, was something like bunches of crisscrossing police-car sirens as heard faintly from afar. As with authentic Noh, there were few, if any, tunes that you could actually hum. The small, eight-person chorus served much the same purpose as that of an ancient Greek tragedy. Costumes were far simpler and much less colorful than their actual Noh counterparts.
So much for the primary changes. Other characteristic Noh features remained intact, or only minimally altered, like the uncluttered stage; the "set" consisted mostly of just a small salt house lowered from the rafters and a surreal, shifting pine tree (a really big one). The slick, polished floor suitable for gliding movement became here some sort of waterproof sheet with actual shallow puddles of water here and there. The ghost sisters dabbled their fingers in them, and, in their scene IV dance sequence, swept through them on bare feet (nary a shoe was seen onstage throughout the entire opera). I was terrified, lest they slip (or trip) and fall as they dragged the long trains of their raggedy, bedraggled-looking white gowns through the water (it looked like there were a couple of close calls). It was quite the soggy mess.
Musically, all was much better than merely "well." Baritone Thomas Meglioranza, as the fisherman, made his brief supporting role count for something, and bass-baritone Gary Simpson made for a sonorous and memorable monk. As the tormented sisters, Korean sopranos Pureum Jo (Matsukaze) and Jihee Kim (Murasame) were simply fabulous; both were in top vocal form, and they acted their ghostly parts with supremely agonized senses of torment. And, ah, the chorus — all members of the vaunted Westminster Choir (beautifully prepared by Amanda Quist) — delivered gripping group moans, slashing choral outbursts, supporting drone passages, brief spoken snippets, and a wealth of other background vocal effects, plus the intermittent tinkle of their hand-held bells. The instrumentalists, of course, were all members of the supreme Spoleto Festival Orchestra, the absolute cream of America's crop of future instrumental stars. Spoleto's Resident Conductor John Kennedy — perhaps America's most distinguished new music guru — held everything together beautifully, navigating the complex score to perfection.
This is Spoleto's third exposure to director Chen Shi-Zheng's work. He also treated Spoleto audiences to Peony Pavilion, the multi-installment, 18-hour Chinese opera staged here in 2004 and 2008's Monkey: Journey to the West. Whoever — set designer Chris Barreca perhaps — came up with that amazing stylized "pine tree," hanging from above rather than rooted in the floor, was a genius. It appeared to me to be made of a cross between frayed feathers, cracked icicles and optical cable; it resembled a psychedelic, Asian-style dragon as much as it did a tree. Lighting designer Scott Zielinski made it glow with just about every color of the rainbow, especially in the "Dance" scene. Otherwise, he rendered most of the other scenes in subtly effective monochrome shades. And he conspired with video designer Olivier Roset to produce stunning effects, including a wealth of projected images (the moon, flames, etc.) on the rather small salt house, as well as a veritable shower of upward-cascading cherry blossoms in the busy dance scene. Elizabeth Caitlin Ward's costumes — from far-out coolie hats to ragged ghost garb — were most effective.
If you have a thing for ghost stories (never mind its Noh origins), or even if you don't, do not pass up this miraculous production.