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Noh biz like show biz

"600-year-old avant garde" -- opera fusion with trad Japanese drama

Diva poetess and her ghostly stalker. Photo: Travon Wong

Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy reunites with girl (or, alternatively, dies of grief). These famous formulae sum up the barebones plotlines of most Western drama – everything from La Traviata to Bye-bye, Birdie.

Japan – older, wise, subtler – ventures beyond such bonehead binaries.

Try this: boy meets girl, loses girl, dies. Boy comes back as ghost, haunts (now elderly) girl. Girl muses poetically to interlocutory passerby on transience of life and love. Girl, in her turn, dies and is plunged into limbo, on brink of ascension to heaven. Boy (ghost) bids her abide with him, but she ruefully must part. Boy ghost possesses girl ghost and they speak in joint, fused, spooky voice.

And that’s a gross oversimplification of the story, but you get the general idea. Such is the “action” in Colleen Lanki’s new fusion opera Kayoi Komachi/Komachi Visited, produced by Vancouver’s TomoeArts society and world premiering at the Cultch this weekend (October 26-28th).  

It doesn’t look much like our hyped up Western notions of theatrical “action,” though. A statuesque soprano holds centre stage, proudly erect, while a stately fan-dancer circles slowly around her, keening and growling. A clipboard-wielding mezzo queries them and a quartet of rigidly formal manikins stiffly mirrors their words and gestures.

Altogether alien, but mesmerically absorbing in its own terms: “A six century old art form, yet still so avant garde,” Lanki marvels.

She should know. She spent seven years in Tokyo, supporting herself as a voiceover actress (dubbing, among other credits, the English version of "Iron Chef") while she studied Noh with some of its leading living exponents. These sensei (teachers) are now in the 80th generation of their artistic lineages, yet they're still game for fusion projects with everyone from out-front jazzmen to opera divas.

By “avant garde,” Lanki means “thoroughly non-linear. Like, the characters and chorus trade off voices, sing each other’s lines and thoughts. Shuttling between worldly and otherworldly, past and present.”

Even the costume design (by Ines Ortner) reflects the Noh penchant for liminal states: asymmetric down the central axis, with the left side garbed differently from the right. The soprano star of the show, for instance, stands half-sheathed in a trailing prima donna ballgown and half enfolded in a giant, pleated fan.

“In Noh, you’re never quite sure just who’s doing or saying what, and to whom,” Lanki shrugs. All this studied ambiguity adds further mystery to the enigmatic “boy meets/loves/loses/pines for/haunts/possesses/relinquishes girl” story line. But it’s all held together with impeccable performances by a stellar cast drawn from multiple traditions.

The “girl” in the title role of Ono No Komachi, a 9th century court beauty and poetess,  is Vancouver’s own soprano Heather Pawsey, well known locally and internationally as a star of the opera and concert stage. The “boy,” her pining suitor, is played by Yamai Tsunao, an officially designated “Intangible Cultural Property” of Japan and a leading light of the Komparu school of Noh drama. Their lab-coated interlocutor is Vancouver mezzo Melanie Adams.

They share the stage with a four member Chorus – two females from the Komparu school (itself an innovation in the heretofore all-male world of Noh) plus a tenor and a baritone from UBC – as well as a five-member string, flute and percussion ensemble of local avant garde instrumentalists. UBC Orchestras Director Jonathan Girard conducts from an edgy score by the Vancouver Intercultural Orchestra’s composer-in-residence, Farshid Samandari.

But both maestro and composer acknowledge that just as important a pacesetter as the written score is the more organic meter dictated by the shoulder-mounted, hourglass-shaped kotsuzumi drum.  For this, TomoeArts imported another performer from Japan: Omura Kayu, daughter of Lanki’s Noh teacher back in Tokyo.

Omura intersperses her percussive thrum with stylized kakegoedrum shouts.” These, to the untutored ear, may sound like random “yips” and “yawps,” but actually they determine the tenor and tempo of the succeeding chants in a highly codified way.

“It took some getting used to,” conductor Girard laughs. “The whole experience has been a real eye-opener for us.” But the Japanese performers were consummate artists and a pleasure to work with, he adds. “We’d love to learn more from them.”

Tomoe would love nothing better than to make that happen, Lanki agrees. All it would take would be another million dollars – about a tenfold increase in the budget of the current production – to bring the whole cast, crew and ensemble to Japan for cultural immersion.

But, meanwhile, she hopes the current production – admittedly more Western than not – could at least someday enjoy a stage run back in the motherland of Noh. Japanese audiences might well be receptive, judging from the reaction of the opening night crowd, many of them resplendent in ornate kimonos, bowing their formal felicitations on opening night.

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