Handel in Bhutan, Monteverdi in Japan, Mozart in Cambodia...operatic performances that have defied all the odds by creating a fusion of culturally diverse musical, dance and theatrical traditions. JapanOrfeo was the latest project at the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura, conceived by Aaron Carpenè and Stefano Vizioli.
Last October, one of Japan’s most venerated shrines was host to the opera Orfeo by the Sixteenth century Italian composer Monteverdi performed by western and Japanese opera singers, musicians, dancers, local actors and a state of the art laser sound harp. It was a testament to cross cultural exchange and the hard work and dedication of two operatic entrepreneurs, Aaron Carpenè and Stefano Vizioli, no strangers to adapting opera to different cultures and remote environments.
It all started back in 2004 when Carpenè was asked by Preston Scott, an American environmental lawyer working in Bhutan to come up with a proposal for a performance in that remote country. Delighted by the challenge, he decided on performing Handel’s opera Acis and Galatea, with a mix of local and western performers and musicians, bringing together what would have seemed to some two irreconcilable cultures.
The creative partnership struck up by Music Director Aaron Carpenè and Director Stefano Vizioli, currently the artistic director of the Teatro di Pisa, has developed a reputation for originality and building cultural bridges in the most unlikely of settings with excellent results.
Their latest production Japan Orfeo took place in Japan in 2016. It was a meeting of East and West, a re-working of Monteverdi’s Orfeo that saw western opera singers performing with the Hosho School of Noh Theatre and performers from the choreographer Fujimo Kanjuro VIII’s dance company. The performance was produced by the Tokyo based Friendship Bridge Classical Music and Arts Society.
Vittorio Prato, one of the most exciting baritones from Italy, performed with Japan’s leading baroque soprano Sakiko Abe. Highly specialized musicians from both Italy and Japan were chosen from amongst the best in the Italian baroque tradition, and were conducted by Italian baroque music specialist Aaron Carpenè.
This was a cultural challenge of the highest order but Carpenè and Vizioli like nothing better when the end result is the building of cultural bridges, particularly in this day and age whose leitmotiv is rapidly becoming an insuperable wall.
I spoke with Aaron Carpenè, the musical director and he explained that the Japanese Orfeo project came to fruition when he realised that the myth of Orpheus at the centre of Monteverdi’s opera has similarities with Japanese mythology, the myth of Izanagi and Izanami. Western audiences would have been familiar with the story of the demi-god Orpheus descending into the Underworld to retrieve his beloved bride Eurydice after their wedding from whence he is allowed to take his wife back with him on one condition, that he does not turn to gaze upon her until they are both out of the Underworld. Besieged by doubts, Orpheus disobeys and turns to look at her, losing her forever.
Izanagi with his wife Izanami created many Japanese islands and gave birth to a variety of the deities of Shintoism. In the myth, Izanami dies while giving birth to Kagu-tsuchi, the fire god. Izanagi set off to find his wife in the Underworld hoping to reclaim her as did Orpheus, but once he had found her he too promised not to look at her, a promise that he broke when he lit a fire and saw her decomposed and horrific face in the light.
The world premiere of Japan Orfeo took place at the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura, one of Japan’s most venerated and spiritually sacred sites, with a subsequent performance at the prestigious Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre Concert Hall. Two features of the performance are worthy of note: the costume design by the world famous Italian fashion house Missoni and the use of an avant-garde lighting and musical effect created by the sound artist Pietro Pirelli, a laser harp, symbolising the enchanting music of Orpheus. He managed the not insignificant task of combining sound-physics with the Baroque music score.
Aaron Carpenè is reluctant to take on the label of “expert” in producing multi-cultural operas: “These projects are like opening a door into a labyrinth where any illusions I had of my own competence and knowledgeability quickly disappear.”
Carpenè, an Australian based in Rome, explains that the original spark for these performances came almost as a form of protest against Italian government cultural policies and budget cuts, epitomised the infamous phrase “con la cultura non si mangia” coined by Giulio Tremonti, Berlusconi’s Minister of Finance in 2010. He set himself the task of dreaming up the most improbable, if not impossible, project as a statement that he had no intention of conforming to this deplorable state of affairs in Italian arts.
Carpenè was asked by an American environmental lawyer working in Bhutan to come up with a proposal for the country, thus was born the idea of Opera Bhutan and the Handel project. “It took me nine years to bring the idea to fruition: Handel’s version of the classical myth of Acis and Galatea merged with the performing traditions of Bhutan, most of the time against all the odds in the world.”
On an initial exploratory trip, he casually asked around if people liked opera, and he was told “Yes, Oprah Winfrey, we love her!”
It was an event that came to involve 12 nations, much administration, organising, hand-wringing, panic and joy.
“Networking is key” to putting these projects together but the crucial thing at the beginning “is to have a good idea” explains Carpenè. Vizioli and Carpenè have had to develop an intuition that helps them identify people who could become decisive in achieving a project’s success.
“I have the good fortune of working with Stefano Vizioli, my artistic partner and internationally acclaimed stage director, without whose experience and cultural preparation the projects would not be possible. Again, the key is having a good idea at the beginning because once you have assembled your team and everyone believes in the value of the project, then it’s not so complicated to move forward and overcome linguistic and cultural challenges, Indeed those challenges are often the source of enrichment.”
The projects do at times throw up some amusing and unexpected roadblocks. The Bhutan project was later performed in El Paso, Texas in 2014 as part of the university’s centennial celebrations. There was a problem with the key Bhutanese performers, the atsara, a kind of jester whose role is to express both the sacred and profane. Often venturing into the obscene in a comical fashion he wears a red mask representing burning passion and carries a large wooden phallus. The latter became the object of censorship for the Texas performances but Carpenè was amused when he read recently about the protest against guns on campuses in Texas where students chose to bring dildos instead – the (in-) famous ‘cocks not glocks’ movement. There was something prophetic about Opera Bhutan in Texas!
Their projects are complex to put together but the final result always comes together on the final stretch during rehearsals. In Bhutan the team carried out independent workshops over a period of three years with the Bhutanese artists to develop their own sense of how to interact with the project. For example Vizioli would explain that at one point, the hero dies, leading him to ask: “How in your culture do you express your reaction to death and how do you translate that on to the stage?”. What the local performers came up with was an authentic Bhutanese traditional cham: the Dance of the Lord of Cremation. Four dancers wearing white skull-masks and long white silk gloves with red streaks whirl around the corpse with their arms outstretched and hands shaking in movements that assist the spirit of the deceased to depart from the physical body. This encapsulates the miracle of what these projects are all about: an unexpected dimension is added to a familiar situation and gives a new and powerful representation and perhaps even inspires us to expand our thoughts on the human condition.
With another project, the Magic Flute, in Cambodia they have already done two workshops over the last three years with local performing artists to develop their own sense of how and what to contribute to the final project. So the final rehearsals are actually the moment when everything comes together. Then it’s just a question of assembling all the pieces.
From a musicological point of view, Carpenè and Vizoli or “Operaestrema” as their series of projects is called, in the classical music field are trying to recreate an authentic historic experience. He adds “It’s more interesting to acquire a sound historical knowledge and sense of style and use that as a starting point rather than to pursue it as the final goal”. Then there is the cultural diplomacy aspect of the projects, where all the issues of interacting with a foreign culture are played off in the framework of music and theatre and where the particular cultural identities of the participating groups are highlighted. Cultural differences are thus presented in an entertaining, educative and unthreatening way. They found for example that so many misunderstandings and incomprehensions encountered in discussions simply didn’t exist in the moment of rehearsal and performance. Everyone simply did what they were meant to do, and differences often unresolvable in dialogue become the powerful ingredient for dramatic theatre.
The future looks bright and, Japan Orfeo is set to tour Italy and the Magic Flute is scheduled for early 2018 at the Chau Say Tevoda Temple in Angkor (Cambodia) and moves are afoot to begin an exciting new project involving Rome, China and the Silk Road.