CULTURE / New Japanese opera gives shape to anxiety

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Akira Nishimura speaks to The Yomiuri Shimbun.

By Hisashi Kiyooka / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterComposer Akira Nishimura has completed the opera “Shion Monogatari” (Asters), which is based on a novel of the same title by Jun Ishikawa.

The first full-length opera by one of the most important Japanese composers today will have its premiere on Feb. 17 at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, in Hatsudai, Tokyo.

“I’ve written music from a wish to expand my inner world. This time, I used the sounds and palette of musical language nurtured through those experiences. By doing so, I think I’ve been able to achieve [musical] brushwork and coloring that are different from before,” Nishimura said.

While writing the opera, he suffered carpal tunnel syndrome for the first time in his life.

“For 14 months, I got up at 4 a.m. and wrote for more than eight to nine hours a day on average,” Nishimura said.

He took such pains to compose the opera because he chose to write the work while also having repeated discussions with main members of the opera’s creative team: conductor Kazushi Ono, the theater’s artistic director of opera; Mikiro Sasaki, who wrote the script; director Yoshi Oida; and supervisor Seiji Choki.

“It was an enjoyable pain. I was aware that I was given the most rewarding job as a composer of my whole life,” he said, reflecting on the experience.

The opera is set in the Heian period (late eighth to late 12th century). Muneyori, a local governor, is born into an honorable family of poets, but he quits poetry and becomes absorbed in archery. Whenever he shoots someone with an arrow, he orders his men to plant asters on the exact location where the victim fell. The flower is a symbol of never forgetting. Muneyori meets sculptor Heita, who carves Buddha’s face on the side of a rock mountain. When Muneyori shoots an arrow at the Buddha’s face, the cliff crumbles down together with the archer.

“This short novel has a story worthy of an epic novel.” Nishimura said. “It’s like a fantasy, and it’s also like a period novel. It’s rich in content as operatic material.”

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  • Courtesy of New National Theatre, Tokyo

    Tomohiro Takada as Muneyori, right, and Ai Usuki as Chigusa rehearse the opera “Shion Monogatari” (Asters).

  • Courtesy of New National Theatre, Tokyo

    Nishimura watches a rehearsal of his opera “Shion Monogatari” (Asters).

The story features three arrows — the arrow of knowledge, the arrow of death and the demon arrow — that are highly symbolic. The demon arrow in particular has power to possibly destroy itself as well as the whole world. It is an arrow one must not release — but Muneyori does, and the two worlds that have been kept in equilibrium by Heita collapse.

“I’m not very optimistic as to whether someone who has seen this opera just once will accept it and understand it,” Nishimura said. “When a certain scene stands out in your mind, you become eager to see it again, so you watch the whole thing from the beginning. Then you become hooked on another scene. I wanted to create many hooks in this work.”

The opera is sprinkled with leitmotifs, which represent characters or things. The melodic phrase for Muneyori is intimidating and is heard in a scene that suggests discomfort. The asters’ motif evokes multiplication, and the motif for the demon arrow has a zig-zag movement, the composer said.

A quartet by the main singers is one of the opera’s highlights. It consists of two duets, each by a man and a woman, performed simultaneously. One of the duets is by Muneyori and Chigusa, who captivates him with her mysterious charm. The other is sung by Princess Utsuro, the wife of Muneyori, and his servant Tonai, who plots to exploit the princess to rule the country together.

“Great works of literature and music mirror their times,” Nishimura said.

The novel was published in 1956.

“On Aug. 15, 1945, [the Japanese people’s] sense of values suddenly went through a 180-degree change. It was the beginning of two different worlds. Pre-war Japan did not completely disappear, and some things have remained unchanged. I think everyone accepted this dual structure, which I feel is described [in the novel],” the composer said.

The story shares common ground with today’s society in which many people feel a vague anxiety.

“It’s one of the literary answers to the indefinite malaise the author suffered throughout his life. That’s why I have a feeling that the work is a perfect fit for this time and age,” Nishimura said.

He does not think he could have expressed everything in the novel with music.

“At the end of the day, art never reaches its goal,” he said. “I think the best we can do is to suggest which direction to look in. But memories stay. This opera itself is like asters.”

The opera, sung in Japanese, will be performed with English and Japanese subtitles on Feb. 17, 20, 23, 24 at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo. Visit for more information.Speech

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