|John Noh, Kristen Choi, and Martin Bakari|
At a time when opera companies are struggling to survive, it is thrilling to watch On Site Opera thrive. In spite of high ticket prices, their productions are always sold out. It would appear that the originality of their concept and the deftness of their execution would account for their success. Snagging a ticket almost guarantees a rare and unusual experience.
In collaboration with MetLiveArts and American Lyric Theater, their latest production, Murasaki's Moon, served to heighten the interest of theater goers in the adjacent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an exhibit which the performance brought to vivid life in the hands of Artistic Director Eric Einhorn.
The work is based upon The Tale of Genji, an 11th c. epic novel written by the noblewoman Lady Murasaki, perhaps the world's first novel. It is filled with characters beyond counting and illustrated lifestyles and customs of the Heian court. It was written by a woman for women in an archaic language used by women, a phonetic language. It was only in the 20th c. that the work was translated into modern Japanese.
English translations followed and the work has had a major effect on all of the arts of Japan, from 12 c. scrolls and screens to contemporary manga series and TV dramas. There was an opera written in 2000 but we were unable to learn anything about it.
The subject of the novel was Genji, the emperor's son whose mother was a lowly born, but favored, concubine. He led a wild romantic life, filled with illicit liaisons and several marriages. The production we saw, with libretto by Deborah Brevoort, did not attempt to tell any episodes from the story, but rather to focus on Lady Murasaki's relationship with her creation Genji, who served as muse.
So many contemporary issues were touched upon that there was no question of relevance. Take for example the issue of the loneliness of the writer. (Just ask us!) Lady Murasaki has a modest position at court, illustrated by her almost colorless three-layer kimono. She desperately wants a friend, but she is different from the other women at court and is the object of envy and rejection. She writes and Genji keeps her company. Many writers of fiction will tell you that they create characters and the characters write the story!
Although we have come a long way here in NYC, there are plenty of places around the USA where creative women are looked at with unkind eyes because they don't follow the wife/motherhood program. We could certainly identify with Lady Murasaki, the "misfit".
In the story we watched, she is angry at Genji for his philandering. He is untrue to her and disappears for periods of time, perhaps representing periods in which writers cannot summon their muse and go silent. On the other hand, putting on our psychological hat, it would seem that Genji is Lady Murasaki's animus, what Carl Jung called the inner representation of a woman's male characteristics. (And yes, men are purported to have an anima, representing their female qualities).
Murasaki makes several pointed observations about women gazing at their images in the mirror and making efforts to be more beautiful. Could anything be more relevant? In any case, we cannot stop thinking about the many layers of the story.
The music added greatly to the story. Composer Michi Wiancko composed some beautiful instrumental music that combined Japanese instruments (Taiko drums and shakuhashi played by Kaoru Watanabe, percussion played by Satoshi Takeishi, and koto played by Yoko Reikano Kimura) with Western music performed by the Aizuri String Quartet. All was conducted by Geoffrey McDonald who integrated the two seamlessly.
The vocal line was another story altogether. Like so much contemporary music, the vocal line was jagged and not at all melodic. Combined with a libretto that often rhymed but did not scan at all, we found little to enjoy, in spite of admirably convincing performances by Kristen Choi as Lady Murasaki, Martin Bakari as the ultimately repentant Genji, and John Noh as a Buddhist priest who himself became interested in Murasaki's writing, a scene we particularly enjoyed. There was one magical musical moment--a duet with gorgeous harmonies that told us that Ms. Wiancko could do better. We would have loved to hear more Japanese-inflected vocal lines. We would have loved to have heard it in Japanese!
Effective costuming was provided by Beth Goldenberg. Genji's bright blue costume and the Buddhist Priest's yellow robes were in high contrast with Murasaki's pale costume. The work was performed in the Astor Court of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was staged in a long narrow playing area with audience members seated along each side.
We would like to add a few words about the titles. The three singers had such excellent diction that titles were unnecessary but we were interested in the technology that was used. Audience members were able to download the On Site Opera app on their phones where titles were available and perfectly matched to the singing. This appears to be the way of the future. We tried it to see if it was distracting and it was not.
The dramatic performances aroused our curiosity and we spent some time in the nearby exhibit, particularly enchanted by the court games that were played, utilizing scenes from the novel. Scenes from the novel also decorated so many artifacts. It was obvious how influential this novel was on a millenia of Japanese culture.
We were too lost in thought to consider any way of getting home other than walking through the park, accompanied by a full moon! We thought of it as Lady Murasaki's moon and felt a strong connection. Isn't that what art is all about?
(c) meche kroop