Minoru Miki Opera
THE NEWYORKER July 1, 1985
Minoru Mikis Joruri libretto by Colin Graham world premiere
by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Mikis earlier opera An Actors Revenge was commissioned
be Graham for the English Music Theatre Company and was first
performed in London in 1979. It was done in St. Louis two years
later, and by then Miki and Graham were already working on a successor.
An Actors Revenge is a Kabuki opera: the protagonist is
a Kabuki actor, and the real-life drama in which he is involved
is played out within Kabuki conventions. The librettist was the
poet James Kirkup. Joruri (the name of a medieval princess,
adopted as a general term for the narrative ballad style in which
her tale was told, while the Japanese characters can also mean
paradise) was inspired by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725),
who brought new refinement, realism, and poetry to the Japanese
puppet play and was celebrated for the love-suicide tragedies.
The characters are Shojo, the old, blind master of a puppet
troupe; his young wife, Otane; and young Yosuke, who both carves
the puppets and animates them in performances while Shojo chants
the narrative. They are another Mark, Iseult, and Tristram. In
a preface to the libretto, Graham notes that a conflict between
giri, obligation or loyalty, and ninjo, human feelings, underlies
Chikamatsu tragedy, and so it does this drama, which is not an
adaptation from Chikamatsu but an original play, embodying some
of his themes, conceived for music and the modern theatre and
specifically for the all-in-one-room intimacy of the Loretto-Hilton.
The action is as simple as that of Wagners Tristan, and
the working is rich, subtle, and skillful. The basic style is
the (comparative) naturalism of sewamono, or domestic drama. In
each of the three acts there is also a Kabuki episode, as three
supernatural visitorsembodiments of memory or thoughtcome to
Shojo. The first is the tyrannical magistrate who blinded him
as punishment when he intervened to save the child Otane from
the magistrates lust; the second Otanes jeering mercenary mother;
the third Shojos doppelganger, come to debate with him once he
has realized that his wife and his disciple love one another.
There is an episode of kyogen, comedy intermezzo, as three theatre
assistants comment on and parody their masters plight. And there
are experts from three puppet plays. The first, straight, introduces
the troupe. The second, the rehearsal of a new play, is broken
off when parallels to the real-life situation prove too painful.
(The heroine is loved by a blind lord; Yosuke has carved the puppet
as a likeness of Otane; later, Shojos fingers trace its features
and sense the passion that went into the caving.) The third, the
climax of a love-suicide tragedyand at the same time the resolution
of the operais enacted not by puppets but by Otane and Yosuke
themselves. Like the characters they play, the lovers disappear
into a waterfall, and Shojo is left alone with us in darkling
theatre. The simple, ever-effective play-within-a-play deviceas
of Pagliaccihas become something subtler, more intricate, opaline.
The contrasted dramatic styles are different kinds of metaphor
which mysteriously act upon one another, light the central situation
from different angles, and explore the shifting relationships
between actors and their audiences.
The influence of Japanese theatre upon Western theatre has
taken many formsin the work of Yeats, Brecht, Britten, Peter
Brook, Peter Sellars. Joruri embodies new, fine-grained Western
responses to the formality, to the contrasts of obliquity and
directness, to the startling changes of pace (near-static musing,
sudden violence), to picturesqueness that serves poetic ends.
Mikis score matchesanimates, enactsthe drama at every point.
He uses an orchestra of moderate size and three Japanese instruments.
The movements of a koto (Japanese long zither) concerto provide
the overture, the prelude to Act II, and , in Act III, a poignant
interlude functioning like The Walk to the Paradise Garden in
Deliuss love -suicide drama A Village Romeo and Juliet. A shakuhachi
(bamboo flute) breathes the tenor of Shojos sad reflections.
A twangling or thrumming shamisen (Japanese lute) accompanies
the puppet plays. Of all the cross-culture composers, Miki has
perhaps most successfully united Japanese and Western elements
in a personal and highly expressive language. His musical training,
in Tokyo, was Westernized; the assimilation of Japanese timbres
and inflections came later. The score of Joruri is notable for
delicate, unconventional, affecting color combinations, for supple
rhythms and pacing, and for eloquent melodic lines. In a program
note, the composer writes of a melodic style growing from the
tone of speech inherent in Mr. Grahams libretto, fused with my
kind of arioso singing. The music changes idiom so match the
changing dramatic styles. The mother-in-laws scolding is pretty
well a cabaret song.
Miki writes, too, of a presentation in which the performers
make use of their whole body and spirit in their burning desire
to communicate with the audience. The St. Louis productiondirected,
as I said, by Graham, conducted by Joseph Rescigno, designed by
Setsu Asakura, lit by Peter Kaczorowski, and choreographed by
Onoe Kikushirowas a marvelously communicative ensemble of song,
instrumental sound, acting, and movement. Faith Esham, the Otane,
looked exquisite and moved exquisitely, and her voice has become
a flexible, beautiful instrument. John Brandstetter, the Yosuke,
acted intently, sang well, and manipulated puppets with skill.
Andrew Wentzel was a moving Shojo. Mallory Walker was brilliant
in the three Kabuki roles. The three assistantsJohn M. Sullivan,
Gorden Holleman, and Stephen Kirchgraberdeftly played invisible
assistants in the puppet episodes, similar roles (in a different
dimension) within the actions of the opera proper, a sprightly
kyogen trio, and three lively individuals. At the performance
I attended, the audience seemed spellbound, and at the close the
silent that is the deepest mark of appreciation yielded gradually
to cheers and a long standing ovation.
||Japanese premiere by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in English
sponcored by the Nissei Theatre was held at Nissei Theatre, Tokyo
on November 13, 15 and 17, 1988.
||Vocal score is published by the Zenon Music Company Ltd.., Tokyo
1-7-7-24 Nihonbashi Horidome-cho, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 103-0012 Japan
tel: +81-3-5623-1310 fax: +81-3-5623-1315