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Opera Theatre “Uta-za”

Uta-za was founded in 1986 by Minoru Miki. This small opera theatre bases itself in Japan where they produce and perform folk music dramas with an international outlook. At first the theatre was known as Utayomi-za: a name taken after their premiere performance “Utayomizaru” (The Monkey Poet).
In 1990, the Monkey Poet received the highest Prize in case of the National Art Festival. At the time, Foundation for the Advancement of Culture and Art started backing the theatre when it propitiously changed its name to Utaza. The theatre develops wide range of activities, while challenges to integrate: music and theatre, tradition and modernity, east and west culture, avant garde and popularity of art, the task is not an easy one.
With the collaboration of Masayuki Tomotake(died in 1993) in vocal-acting aspect, and Asaya Fujita in writing-executive aspect , Miki cultivated:

    A folk-opera “Utayomizaru”(The Monkey Poet)
    A folk-opera “Yomigaeru”
    A folk opera ”Orochi-den”
    An operetta “Husband the Hen”

Also Miki developed a Karaku style which combines singing-narrative part and Japanese instrumental part like:

    A Karaku “Berodashi Chomma”
    A karaku “Tsuru (Cranes)”
    His another purpose for the theatre was to create repertory for children like:
    A song circle “Noharauta”
    A music drama “Kikimimi”

The official comment when “Utayomizaru”(The Monkey Poet) got the Prize was:

“Utayomizaru” is an unique work with folklore based libretto made by Mitsuo Kawamura, music composed by Minoru Miki, and employs the speech of dialect. The songs and performance are in perfect harmony and brings out a great stage impact. It presents a new potential in Japanese music theatre.

Utaza has performed “Utayomizaru”(The Monkey Poet) almost 230 stages in Japan. This opera already has its English version made by Colin Graham who cooperated with Miki since more than twenty years. The cast consists of the monkey, the old farmer and his three daughters, a village elder, and a chorus of six villagers. They wear masks, which they remove when they come out of character and speak the narration. The orchestra is consisted by only four players on the both stage side. All instruments came from Asia.
The theatre is looking forward to bring the original production of this opera for some theatrical festival on abroad.

From reviews of the premiere:

One scene of “The Monkey Poet”
“Libretto applies the old plain form of speech from the narrative. The music, the production and the choreography, all maintain this simplicity, and create a heartwarming music drama. The music is so uniquely arranged that it enhances the rustic and rigorous mood of the stage. The sounds of vocals and instruments are naturally delivered to the ears of audience as the vocals never uses microphones and the composer himself is the conductor. Thus the sound is always integral to the production: an unforgettable craftmanship. One might find where Japanese musical stands today in the various challenging experiments of this work.” (Akahata)

“There can be various interpretations; the choice of an implicit folktale seems to have been a very fitting source for a musical stage. Minoru Miki elegantly depects the simplicity of the folktale setting.” (Sankei)

“The Music embodies a drama feature using folklore and masque and musical feature using Japanese 20-string koto, Chinese flute and Indonesian Gamulan instruments, which creates a totally East Asian overtone. What captivates the audience straight to the end is the simple story and the sober intensity of the narrative.” (Asahi)

“The Monkey Poet is not what we should categorize within the realms of the musical or opera of the past. Minoru Miki, as his opera and theatrical pieces prove, is acknowledged as a brilliant Japanese composer. He is a man of wide musical sympathies and flexibility who can put the character, the mindset and the mood of a drama into a music. The same is true of this production’s various forms of expression, which develops into a unique music drama. He directs the production in Chinese style art and theatre drawing on masque and symbolic costumes. Gakuza (4 instrumental ensemble who play on both side stage separately) is effective above all as to transcend a theatrical performance.” (On Stage)

One scene from the premiere of “The Monkey Poet”
“The production grappled with the issue of boldly and simply framed <discrimination>
and develops soberly arranged musical performance. Here are some well-presented effects on the stage. First, dissimilation made by distinguishing the narrative and the action using masques. Second, the conductor and instrumentalists play from both side stage actually watching the play themselves. They are off stage yet part of the stage performance, which brings an effect of relatively to the whole performance. Third, the music itself is neither a familiar Western nor Oriental; it is intended to be more of an Asian music which keeps sober and decorous distance from the play world. Fourth, farrago of geometric art and traditional art of Noh, Kyogen and Kabuki choreography and gesture is effective. The work soberly evolves a style of plot and performance on the stage as Kunio Kishida once said, by breaking the convention but studying the tradition.” (Theatoro)

“The Monkey Poet was a stimulating performance combining Japanese folktale and traditional music. A unique style of placing instrumentalists together with Minoru Miki, the composer and conductor at both end of the stage, appeared to be more of a traditional Asian musical than a Japanese one. The birds chiming and the song to which monkeys dances at the wedding parade somehow seems familiar and pleasant in our ears: a contentment after the show is quite different from that of the Broadway. The production is adapted from a folktale <marriage of a monkey> perhaps originated by the peasantry. When a mastery in uta (Japanese short poem) meant a man of culture, people try to outwit the monkey by demanding the impossible. Are they clever? The youngest daughter, the bride-to-be is soft in the head but sincere at heart, cannot play uta. Is it just an irony that she is so sensitive to human nature, sadness and love. The audience dare laugh at the deceived monkey because they have to reflect on their own behavior. While owing very much to the adaptation itself, simplicity of the folktale for its simplicity’s sake leaves us with much implications.” (Gakken National Language)

Minoru Miki