ESSAY: ‘Matsukaze’ and the hybridization of East and West
The American premiere of the opera “Matsukaze” is a hybrid of several diverse elements. Based on a Japanese Noh drama of the same name, “Matsukaze” is the brainchild of Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa set to a German libretto by Hannah Dubgen, directed by the renowned Chen Shi-Zheng and conducted by John Kennedy, the festival’s director of orchestra activities.
On the web
For more on “Matsukaze,” including a Q&A with director Chen Shi-Zheng and an explanation of the Japanese Noh tradition, go to postandcourier.com/spoleto.
Kennedy described this union as Hosokawa’s love letter to his appreciation of both Japanese and Western artistic traditions.
If you go
WHAT: “Matsukaze”WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday; 8:30 p.m. Sunday; 8:30 p.m. June 1; 8 p.m. June 4; 8:30 p.m. June 8WHERE: Dock Street Theatre, 135 Church St.COST: Tickets start at $25MORE INFO: www.spoletousa.org, 579-3100
“Hosokawa is an avowed Buddhist,” Kennedy said. “He sees his own role as an artist in reconciling both Western and Eastern parts of himself and his culture.”
In doing so, Hosokawa has traveled an extremely familiar path. The marriage of East and West in art is hardly a new concept, and has been witnessed ever since the civilizations came in contact with each other.
In an age before air travel, the exchange of goods and products between East and West took place on a network of trade routes called the Silk Road, along which cultural exchange quickly extended to religion, philosophy, art and architecture.
Around the 4th century B.C., symbols and images of Buddha were sculpted in a Classical Greek style, such as the “Great Buddha of Kamakura,” a bronze figure in Kamakura, Japan.
Music was no exception to this hybrid bandwagon. During the colonial period, European powers were enamored not only with the spices and wares of the East, but also the harmonies, melodies and scales they practiced.
This fascination with music of the Orient became evident in the works of well-known composers such as Debussy. This French composer was influenced by gamelan music, traditional to the islands of Java and Indonesia.
Similarly, Mozart used the marching music of the Ottoman military.
By the 19th century, theater and opera works married Western stage practices with Eastern elements. French composer Leo Delibes’ 1883 opera “Lakme” is the tragic love story of the daughter of a Hindu Brahmin and an English officer, set during the British Raj in India (albeit seen through a dominant Western gaze).
Death and love appear again in Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” where a young girl from Nagasaki, Japan, marries a U.S. Navy lieutenant who leaves her for an American wife. Puccini composed a delicate fusion of Japanese and American melodies.
The East easily found its way into 20th-century Western works, such as Stephen Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures,” a musical based on the historical opening of Japan in 1853 by Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the U.S. Navy. Sondheim synthesizes the kabuki theater dance form with an English libretto set to music featuring the Japanese pentatonic scale.
While Noh theater is still a largely unknown art in the West, several dramatists have borrowed or adapted some of its traditional characteristics. German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote the libretto for Kurt Weill’s 1930 opera “Der Jasager” based on a translated reading of the Noh play “Taniko.”
More faithful to form is English composer Benjamin Britten’s parable “Curlew River,” adapted from the Noh play “Sumidagawa.”
“Matsukaze” is the simple story of two ghost sisters, Matsukaze and Marusame, who are doomed to haunt the Earth, waiting for their long-lost lover, as a punishment for having fallen prey to their sensual desires.
Hosokawa retains the original plot in his composition but in a condensed form, as opposed to the elongated Noh version, which can go on for several hours, Kennedy said.
Among the new aspects to watch for in the Spoleto production is the use of Hosokawa’s contemporary musical vocabulary, which relies on the sounds of nature.
Chen Shi-Zheng said it was the cross-pollination inherent in this version of “Matsukaze” that inspired him to direct it.
“The fact that Hosokawa wrote a Noh opera in German, transforming something so ‘Japanese’ into a new form, reminds me of my own creative path,” Chen said. “There are similarities between Japanese and German, in terms of syllabic structure and some of the vowels, and so as strange as it seems, the opera sits perfectly in German.”
“Matsukaze” in its Noh convention is a classic example of its genre. In its own way, Hosokawa’s rendition, filtered through German, Chinese and American culture, is part of an exciting and increasingly common genre.
Eesha Patkar is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.