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Kabuki, Noh, and Opera: Oh my!

That voice in my head has a review to share!

About a week ago, I was fortunate enough to catch a performance of Ichikawa Ebizo’s The Tale of Genji – Sequel. The Tale of Genji is a famous, ancient story written by lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu during the Heian Period (11th century). It’s said to be the first modern novel.

The Tale of Genji – Sequel is based on the original, but takes some creative liberties. The piece mixes kabuki (Mr. Ichikawa’s specialty) with another traditional Japanese theatre form, Noh, and Europe’s traditional art from, opera. I haven’t heard of any other time where these art forms were mixed together. I had no idea what to expect. Kabuki and Noh are so different despite both being Japanese traditional art forms, and then to add opera, too! I knew I was going to be in for quite an experience.

I was so excited that I didn’t pay much attention to which theater it was at…and ended up at the wrong theater! By the time I realized my mistake, it was too late; I ended up missing the first 15 minutes. There are too many theaters in Kyoto, and since it was a kabuki play I assumed it would be at the Minami-za kabuki theater; however, it was at the new Kyoto Theater inside JR Kyoto Station. Let’s just say I’m an idiot and move on…

Once I was safely inside the theater and in my seat, I sat back to enjoy the show- and man, what a show it was! The costumes, lights, and set pieces were just stunning! Bright, spring colors such as pale pink and green, along with royal purple were the favorite for costumes. An enormous cherry tree branch hung down from the top right of the stage. There was a translucent scrim upstage through which we could see a fortepiano and its pianist, cellist, and violinist. Cherry blossom (sakura) petals softly rained down onto the stage as the lights brightened to reveal kabuki actors mid-dance.

There was an unmistakable Shakespearean element to the play. Our protagonist, Hikaru Genji, is a lovesick fool (Romeo anyone?); but when he tells the audience that he has unknowingly fallen in love with one of his deceased father’s wives (Roku-no-Kimi), we see that fate has other plans for Hikaru Genji. This clearly illustrates the Shakespearean influence because the forces of fate pull the strings of Genji’s life, just as they do in many of Shakespeare’s plays. There was also a really cool “Don Giovanni/Hamlet” moment when Genji sees his father’s ghost in the palace garden one night after a rendezvous with Roku-no-Kimi. Genji’s father’s ghost wears a Noh mask and doesn’t speak- it just approaches ominously surrounded by mist and an eerie, pale light. Genji cowers, feeling the power of his father’s anger and disapproval; after the ghost leaves, Genji feels ashamed and chooses to exile himself to Suma (another prefecture). The angst, the dead father, the evil uncle- so many Hamlet-esque plot points!

The second act was by far my favorite! I’m not sure what the actual name of the dance is, but what I’ve dubbed the “Dragon God Dance” was so visually and aurally impressive it left me speechless. Three dragon gods appear to Genji in a dream and prophecy his return to the capital, Kyoto. The dance itself was a mix of kabuki and Noh- two of the gods as Noh dancers, and Mr. Ichikawa disguised as a Dragon God danced kabuki. The Noh masks were absolutely terrifying! Here’s some examples:

Every time a Noh dancer seemed to look in my direction, my eyes grew wide and I feared that he could see right into my soul- I shrunk back in my seat to make him stop. Despite the fear, however, I couldn’t take my eyes away; their dance was eerily beautiful.

It was so cool to see the two dances performed sequentially- kabuki is known as the “common man’s theatre,” and seeing it performed right next to the “noble’s theater” Noh, I could clearly see why. Kabuki is rambunctious; it’s fast and loud, with tricks and spins, loud stomps of the feet and mie (over-the-top facial expressions famous in kabuki). Noh is way more subdued: smooth, crisscrossing patterns as if the dancers were gliding across the floor; it was slow and steady, almost trance-like. The mix of the two was absolutely perfect- by the time I was put into a calm trance, Mr. Ichikawa’s rowdy kabuki dance brought me right out of it. Kabuki dance oozes power and strength. The accompaniment was up-tempo and boisterous, making my heart race and my smile grow.

Now for the opera…just wow. What makes this play extremely different from traditional kabuki is that it not only mixes Noh with kabuki, but that Mr. Ichikawa has also included opera. American countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo was invited to play the Knight of the Moon’s Shadow in Tale of Genji – Sequel. His character acted as a sort of narrator/prophet; he would sing Italian and English painfully beautiful melodies to accompany the mood of the scene. Mr. Costanzo’s vocals being “painfully beautiful” fit the overall theme of Genji’s tale wonderfully: punishment for feeling/thinking the wrong things, but still striving forward with a sense of duty and “gaman” (perseverance through elegant and subdued strength). Mr. Costanzo’s costume was a gorgeous mix of East and West: purples, greens, metallic in what resembled the traditional yukata shape of kabuki actors, but was just slightly different. It made him stand out, but not to the point where it was distracting.

Mr. Ichikawa’s theatre piece was truly spectacular- it made bold, interesting choices that were executed with great finesse and understanding. Even though I wasn’t overly familiar with the story, the performance was so moving that I cried at the end. I was so enthralled that when the lights came up and bows started, I didn’t even clap at first- I just sat there, wiping the tears away until I finally realized it was over.

© 2016 by That Voice in my Head - Meagan Finlay

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