Japan respects the inevitability of ghosts. As summer intensifies and the chilly tendrils of rainy season melt to immutable heat, Japan honors the dead with the ancestral festival, O-Bon. How fitting that New National Theatre, Tokyo’s Opera Division now premiers Rokumeikan, an original opera in Japanese, based on the play by Yukio Mishima and the dreams of NNTT’s revered conductor and Artistic Director, the late Wakasugi Hiroshi. Wakasugi died last July, but his is not the only wraith murmuring ‘bravo’ in the shadowed theatre, amidst the applause of more substantial creatures.

Rokumeikan, one of the most adapted of Mishima’s plays, shades a story replete with ghosts from the past, unconquered spirits of love lost and love too much found. Yellow chrysanthemums flood the stage with brightly colored allusion to Imperial Japan as the curtain opens, but the eye flickers towards two women in Western-styled Victorian dress: Marchioness Daitokuji and her daughter, Akiko discuss the upcoming ball at Rokumeikan, and their hopes Akiko will settle on a husband.

Thus, the framework is set for the entire opera: politics and history proclaim a spot of importance, the conflict between the chrysanthemum and traditional Japan vs. the admired elegance of the newly admitted Western World, signified by their Western Dress. More importantly, however, simmering beneath this historical conundrum, the age old tangles and tensions between the sexes lie in wait. It is November 3, 1886: Count Kageyama will host a ball at the famous Rokumeikan, the venue itself a paean to European culture and architecture, in honor of the Emperor’s birthday, and here, at this symbol of Japan’s convoluted relationship with the West, the many tensions of the opera collide.

Kageyama’s wife, Asako, a former geisha, must confront the ghosts of her own past when a former love, Kiyohara, leader of the anti-government coalition, arrives for the ball, unaware an assassination attempt on his life has been planned by Count Kageyama himself. Added to the political intrigue, the human element of love lost and newly found – Asako’s enduring love for Kiyohara and Akiko’s fresh love for Hisao, Kiyohara and Asako’s lovechild – entwine with a predictable yet nevertheless engaging tragic denouement.

In its heyday, the real Rokumeikan hosted elaborate balls, showcasing the tonne of Japan and their ability – or inability, depending on the view – to emulate the best of Europe. Menus were written in French, Japanese couples danced the waltz and the quadrille, modeling the latest Parisian fashions.

Like many things, then and now, when East meets West, the outcome inspired controversy. Japanese people were divided over this “betrayal” of traditional values, some welcoming, some deriding the infiltrations of culture. Visitors, too, sometimes praised the ostentatious Western-style Rokumeikan and all it represented, while others ridiculed the Japanese as “monkeys” in their borrowed formal clothes.

Uyama Hitoshi, highly respected for his successful direction of highly diverse productions, ranging from Shakespeare to Conor Mcpherson to the recent opera Carmen, expertly employs these contradictions to heighten Mishima’s trademark philosophical deliberations, adding elements of the grotesque and absurd to his staging. In this way, Mishima’s shade is well honored, and the opera remains true to the essence of Mishima, with his dismay at Japan’s new direction. Uyama’s original libretto beautifully renders Mishima’s prose into poetry, musical phrases subtly attuned to their new home in opera.

Uyama’s use of opaque mirrors in the final half of the opera adds to the sense of spiritual observation, as characters grapple with emotion against a backdrop of whispering apparitions and shadows. Apart from the mirrors and ever-present chrysanthemums, the set is minimal, the opera very much a story relying mostly on words, not spectacle.

It is a shame Mishima fans in the West, and many Japanese in Tokyo, disappointed in their efforts to secure a ticket to these sold-out performances, can not see this production. Ikebe Shinichiro, a prolific artist famous in Japan for his work across genres, from film to orchestra to animation, triumphs with his composition, at turns lively and inspiring, a perfect blend of Asian and Western harmonies, reflecting the dual perspectives at work. With the efforts of conductor Numajiri Ryuusuke, Principal Conductor for the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and famed composer in his own right, the production whispers with the expectations of a thousand united muses. They were not disappointed, and the opera ends in fitting Japanese bathos: a shot rings out, echoing the earlier scene of tragedy. Countess Asako turns to her husband Kageyama, her face painted in fear: “Was that a gunshot?,” she asks. “Just fireworks,” he answers quietly. They turn and together walk to the back of the darkened stage as the curtains close. A portrait of NNTT’s late conductor, Wakasugi dominates the backdrop as the curtain reopens for applause, and one can imagine his spirit smiles in relief.


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