Hauntings and Bleeding Hearts

Reflections on Kayoi Komachi/Komachi Visited and a crash course in Noh theatre By Heidi Specht
  • Yamai Tsunao and Heather Pawsey / Photo by Trevan Wong
  • Heather Pawsey / Photo by Trevan Wong
  • Yamai Tsunao / Photo by Trevan Wong

Vancouver October 26-28, 2017, The Cultch Historic Theatre

Kayoi Komachi/Komachi Visited is an ambitious new chamber opera that blends Japanese Noh theatre and western classical music. Produced by TomoeArts, the work is a collaboration between artists from Japan and Vancouver. The story combines two Noh plays about the renowned ninth-century Japanese poet Ono no Komachi, as well as five of her original poems.

Komachi was known for her legendary beauty, passionate writing, as well as her cold treatment of her many suitors, particularly the persistent lover Fukakusa, whose love for her knew no bounds. In this reimagining, the historical tale is partially modernized and integrated into a contemporary story of a woman and man haunted by their passionate and troubled relationship.

Japanese Noh theatre originated in the fourteenth century and is a multidisciplinary art form that combines dance, chant, music, masks, costumes and ancient stories. Noh theatre is rigidly classical and those actors with professional status most often begin their intense training as young children.

It is always exciting to see diverse artists come together and to witness what will come of melding their talent, forms and perspectives. It’s a rare treat to see the participants dare to go out of their comfort zone and push the boundaries of their form. I have seen a great number of attempts at intercultural collaboration that ultimately fail because the final production resembles a showcase for each form side by side, but where no true integration takes place.

In this case, the artists have achieved a high degree of unity, despite the challenges inherent in bringing these diverse and distinct forms together. Director and librettist Colleen Lanki bridges these two worlds, having dedicated a significant portion of her career to studying traditional Japanese dance and theatre and exploring the intersection of these forms with her own western theatre, dance and music training. The works marks Lanki’s second collaboration with composer Farshid Samandari; she also worked on Pro Musica’s Shadow Catch, an original chamber opera about Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and which was also influenced by traditional Noh theatre. That collaboration must have helped to lay the groundwork for their successes here.

The lead character of Komachi was portrayed by award-winning soprano Heather Pawsey who gave us an achingly beautiful performance. In this production, we see Komachi as an older, troubled woman who relives and works through her turmoil-filled relationship with her lover Fukakusa, while taking stock of her life. Her poetry is her salvation and helps her to find expression for her inner world and desires. This play would fall into a category known as “older woman” Noh plays, which are known to be the most difficult to perform. They focus on the theme of aging, and the performer must have the maturity and strength of character to confront life’s existential questions. Such was the task of Pawsey. She had to dig deep in order to carry the complex emotional life of the character, while singing in poetic language and integrating elements of stylized Noh movement patterns.

Noh plays usually have a secondary performer category called the waki, which functions as a listener, to whom the tale unfolds. Traditionally a monk, the character in this modern retelling is a counsellor – a clever modern equivalent. The grounding presence of mezzo-soprano Melanie Adams in this role brought a welcome modernity and clarity to the story.

The performance of Noh master Yamai Tsunao as Fukakusa was breathtaking and exhilarating. The honesty and depth of complex emotions he conveyed with his every breath and movement, his anguish, anger, love, his bleeding heart revealed for all to see, had me on the edge of my seat. He has the ability to maintain the traditions of his form, while at the same time venturing into the more heightened and less constrained emotions of western opera. In Japan such departures from traditional Noh are not always looked upon favourably by Noh purists. It was a joy to witness his performance, to see a true master in action, taking risks within his form.

The Noh chorus is a traditionally a group of six to eight male singers who sit on stage left throughout the performance. Conventional wisdom holds that it is impractical to have male and female performers together in the chorus because their different pitch ranges make it difficult to function as one cohesive voice. In this production, there was a rare departure from Noh tradition, with the chorus consisting of two women (Noh actors Muraoka Kiyomi and Kashiwazaki Mayuko) and two men (tenor Joseph Bulman and bass-baritone Peter Monaghan).

Combining Noh chant and opera, male and female voices and Japanese/English languages, this chorus functioned beautifully together despite their differences and was a metaphoric representation of the male/female relationship and perspectives explored in the piece. Their intense focus, keen physical awareness and the power of their voices and vocal styles in combination was superb. Unlike the traditionally stationary Noh chorus, this chorus moved together throughout in different configurations with precision and simplicity to add and support, to echo or comment. Particularly effective were the moments of translation with the Japanese being translated to English, offering the English-speaking audience moments to understand the text or a key moment between the characters.

The full and emotionally rich score composed by the immensely talented Samandari, took centre stage. As composer-in-residence with the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra, he is no stranger to intercultural explorations, and there were certainly challenges here to create a Noh-inspired opera without the benefit of all of the traditional Noh instruments. The only Noh instrument here was the kotsuzumi (shoulder drum) performed by professional Noh musician Omura Kayu, who at times could not help but be overshadowed by the volume, intensity and unity of the chamber orchestra passionately led by conductor Jonathan Girard.

The accomplished instrumentalists were Mark Takeshi McGregor (flute), Domagoj Ivanovic (violin), Isabelle Roland (viola), Laine Longton (cello) and Brian Nesselroad (percussion), all of whom conveyed the sensation of a Noh ensemble. The flautist in particular was able to effectively mimic the style of the Noh bamboo flute, which powerfully evoked the Noh sound. But, the overall score was strongly weighted toward the realm of western music. I was left feeling curious about what the effect would have been overall if there had been more of a balance, with the inclusion of more of the traditional Noh instruments and perhaps a score that, like conventional Noh orchestration, was a bit more sparse.

While the Cultch stage is an intimate and excellent venue, its size and configuration did have an impact on the staging. The music ensemble took up a great deal of the performance area on the small stage, so sometimes the choreography and staging felt cramped with much of the playing area taking place up front and to the side of the musicians. A special feature of a traditional Noh stage is the hashigakari, a narrow bridge upstage right used by actors to enter the stage. It is not just a walkway; it can also symbolize a metaphorical pathway between the “spirit world” and the “earthly world.” Watching the entrances and exits of the lead character along the hashigakari has always been a favourite part of watching a Noh play. Because there is simply no room to create such a walkway in the Cultch, a section far upstage was used for this purpose. Because it was so far back, and with the actors onstage in front of him, the dramatic impact of both the entrance and departure of Fukakusa was somewhat lost in this space.

What shone through for me as the greatest success in this production was the joy of collaboration between the participants. Their openness and desire to explore was evidenced in the incredible interactions between them and is a celebration of our common humanity and the power of art to bring people together. With only three days of performances, I hope there will be a chance for this production to be remounted. 

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