Noh is one of the world's oldest forms of traditional theater, with a history that stretches back to 14th century Japan. On a traditional Noh stage, a painting of a pine tree — typically the gnarled, flattened, iconic Japanese white pine — is a bit of set dressing meant to signify that the play's action takes place in the world of the spirits. Old conifers have a particularly sacred place in the Shinto theology, an animistic faith in Japan in which nearly every natural object contains a spirit, or kami, and deserves a measure of respect, if not outright worship. Near such a tree, one is as likely to encounter one of the many denizens of the Japanese spirit world as in a temple or a shrine.
It is fitting, therefore, that a central set element of Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa's new opera Matsukaze — a stylistic nod to the Noh tradition and to one of its most revered works, though the opera and its libretto are very much the products of a modern musical idiom — is an ancient pine tree. The name of the opera, which it takes from one of its two central characters, means "wind in the pines," and matsu translates as "pine tree" — though it can also mean "to wait," or "to pine," which is exactly what the long-dead Matsukaze and her spirit sister, Murasame, do at the ancient tree: wait, pining for the lost lover they shared so many years before, and for whom they've been grieving as wandering, forlorn revenants ever since.
But that's as far as Hosokawa goes with the traditional aspects. The famous Noh masks; the open, wooden-columned stage; the exaggerated kimono-inspired costumes; the lengthy, chanted narrative of the libretto in the seven-five rhythm common to Japanese poetry — all of these have been pruned away from the urtext of the story and reimagined in the more contemporary style of an artist who has been called Japan's greatest living composer.
Hosokawa's major break from tradition with Matsukaze, however, may be in the music itself. Traditional Noh theater is an economical musical form, to say the least. The usual music ensemble is a set of four musicians: three percussionists and a shinobue flutist. (It may be the only form of popular music in which the drummers outnumber the rest of the band members.) Yet when Hosokawa's opera opens on May 24 at the Dock Street Theatre, it will place a reimagined musical composition front and center, featuring the powerhouse of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra in the pit, conducted by Festival resident conductor and Music in Time maestro John Kennedy.
Hosokawa's music for Matsukaze imitates nature in its manner, says Kennedy, which seems appropriate for a work so closely associated with nature worship. "He'll take a musical theme, a little melody, and it will repeat itself in cycles throughout the opera." The analogy Kennedy likes to use, he says, is that of waves hitting the seashore.
"Waves never occur like a metronome; they happen aperiodically. Each one is different from the next. And he does that with his music, where it sounds like you are in a natural environment. He uses instruments with a lot of texture, creating temperature and color changes to give one the illusion of wind, of passing spirit. The chorus also uses their voices often to make wind sounds."
If wind plays an outsized role in the work, so do waves. Matsukaze opens with an effect that sounds much like waves lapping on a beach — a sound that took on an altogether new significance at the opera's premiere in Brussels, Belgium, just a few months after the devastating one-two punch of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Kennedy notes that his Music in Time series at last year's festival included a new work for chamber orchestra that Hosokawa wrote in response to the tsunami and the human and environmental havoc it wreaked.
"I know that Hosokawa views his music as an expression of Buddhist spirituality, of trying to understand and come to peace with one's inner nature," Kennedy says. Hosokawa himself has observed that he developed a personal musical language heavily influenced by European new music (he studied and worked in Berlin for many years before returning to Tokyo), but was more interested in creating a new, completely original form of Japanese music than in merely noodling about with idiosyncratic modern music techniques. His combination of traditional and contemporary musical styles has yielded what many have called a breathtakingly beautiful, meditative score that makes nods in the direction of Noh and ancient Japanese court music but which has a distinctively modern, almost impressionistic feel.
"Hosokawa uses tonal centers that the piece really revolves around," Kennedy explains. "Some of the vocal lines are incredibly lush and beautiful, very slow-moving and flowering. It's lovely music to listen to. The fact that it unfolds in these long, aching, arcing lines is very beautiful. It's not like listening to a fast-moving melody that lasts for just eight measures. But if you can get into the space where you're willing to listen to a vocal line go on for a minute, gradually ascending, it's really very beautiful."
The plot of the one-act tale, which many attribute to the 15th-century Noh master Zeami, is spare, in keeping with the genre's aesthetic traditions. According to legend, Matsukaze and her sister, Murasame (meaning "autumn rain"), worked on the shores of the Bay of Suma near Kobe making sea salt from brine. The girls both fell in love with a government official who had been exiled to Suma, then died of grief when they learned he had himself died following his departure. Their troubled shades have remained behind, unable to pass on to the spirit world, held in the grip of this one by grief and a very un-Buddhist longing until a visitor arrives at their former home.
Matsukaze is directed by renowned Chinese-American visionary Chen Shi-Zheng, a name familiar to Spoleto audiences for his directorial work on 2004's epic production of the 20-hour, 55-act Ming dynasty opera The Peony Pavilion, 2007's Damon Albarn-produced hit Monkey: Journey to the West, and Dido and Aeneas in 2001.
"Chen Shi-Zheng is a brilliant director who has a lot of experience and perspective with synergizing ancient traditions with contemporary," says Kennedy, noting that Chen brings particular insight into the representational and metaphoric nature of the story of Matsukaze. "The four characters in this opera are not so much people as they are different aspects of human nature. It's a cultural sensibility that we in the West haven't lived with in the same way, in looking at stories and drama that way."
Because the work was created as a commission for the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, and no doubt because of Hosokawa's long personal history with German and European new music, the libretto (by Hannah Dübgen) is in German, and will be performed with English supertitles. A Japanese composition, with a Chinese director, sung in German? Oddly enough, says Kennedy, it works.
"[Hosokawa] didn't want to [do a foreign language translation] with this work. His German is very good, and the German setting of this opera is so beautiful. He uses the chunkiness of German, the sound of it, almost as a texture within the opera. I think it's valuable to hear the sung music as a sound, as a spirit. It fits the libretto very well."
The Brussels production included not only the singers but an additional cast of more than a dozen dancers — the members of Berlin director/choreographer Sasha Waltz's dance company. But for the five Spoleto performances, Chen's direction has removed the dance aspect of the work to focus more closely on the music and the mood. The opera also features an all-new vocal ensemble.
"We have a spectacular cast," says Kennedy, "particularly in the roles of these two sisters, Matsukaze and Murasame, two young Korean women who are going to go on and have tremendous careers in opera, and people can say they heard them here when."