Q & A: Artistic Director Kazushi Ōno Opens Up About His Vision for New National Theatre Tokyo

By David Salazar
(Photo © Rikimaru Hotta)

When he was 10-years-old, Kazushi Ōno went to the opera for the first time. What opera did he witness? “La Traviata.” He was hooked.

This led him to study at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music before he headed off to Germany to study as a scholar of the Japanese Ministry of Culture under Wolfgang Sawallish and Giuseppe Patanè. From there, he would engage with a major career in Europe where he was Chief Conductor of the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra before taking on the role of General Music Director of the Baden State Opera. He has also held posts with the Barcelona Symphony and Catalonian National Orchestra. He currently holds the position of music director with the Brussels Philharmonic.

Ōno has also made waves at home in Japan where he is the music director of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra and New National Theatre Tokyo. He is engaged with the ambitious project of creating one of Asia’s most important opera houses.

OperaWire spoke to Ōno about his upcoming projects with New National Theatre Tokyo, including this upcoming season where he takes on works by operatic titans including Verdi and Wagner.

OperaWire: As the Artistic Director of New National Theatre Tokyo (NNTT), what are your main goals for the organization? How have these goals changed since you took over in 2018?

Kazushi Ōno: In the first place, I have intended to expand the repertoire of NNTT and I have built the following pillars to achieve this goal:

a) Commission work of the Japanese composer’s Opera series once in two years

b) Double Bill series once in two years

c) Baroque opera once in two years

d) French and Russian operas such as Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande,” and Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov”

e) 20th century operas such as Britten, Janacek, Szymanovski, and Bartok

The Japanese composer’s new Opera, “Asters,” written by Mo. Akira Nishimura has been chosen as the finalist of “World Premiere” of the prestigious International Opera Awards 2020. For the Double Bill series, I have combined ”Eine florentinische Tragödie” by Zemlinsky and ”Gianni Schicchi” by Puccini. Since both stories are set in Florence, even though it evolves a striking difference, while one is tragedy, the other is comedy. This challenge has been very well received by the public. “Pelléas et Mélisande’’ staged by Katie Mitchell and ”Boris Godnov’’ staged by Mariusz Treliński were staged for the first time in NNTT and received the “Music Pen Club” prize by the Japanese Music Critics.

Of course, I have to mention that the pandemic has changed our planning enormously. After a four month suspension of the theatrical activities in 2020, we had to restart the season with Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Russian double bill “Le Rossignol” by Stravinsky, “Iolanta” by Tchaikovsky were staged under guidelines and with distance, in consideration to movements, and at times, with a limited number of audience members. We have gone through the following seasons with these restrictions.

In the Tokyo Olympic year in 2020 we cancelled “Die Meistersinger” by Wagner, which had to be rescheduled one year later. Even though the staging was far from original and half of the choir sang off the stage with distance.

In this season (2022-23) we have finally seen the good sign to come back to normal, like before the pandemic.

With “Boris” performed in November 2022 the audience occupancy reached 70 percent and with the four popular opera productions staged afterwards in 2023, “Aida,” “Rigoletto” (new production), “Salome,” and “La Bohème,” it reached almost 90 percent.

OW: What have been some of the highlights of your tenure thus far? Do you have a favorite production or collaboration?

KO: In addition to what I have already mentioned above, I would like to say that the “Meistersinger” production in 2021 (coproduced with Salzburg Easter Festival, Die Semperoper and Tokyo Bunka Kaikan) was one of the highlights, despite the postponement due to the pandemic.

Also “Boris Godnov” in 2022, staged by Mariusz Treliński. To stage this opera, Mariusz and the dramaturgy team has done profound historical research of Boris Godunov and his times. What they aimed is not to describe the 16th century Russia realistically, but to find the historical facts and universal theme, which has a link to the present. As a result, the opera conveyed an extraordinarily strong message with powerful Mussorgsky music and made us see the present from the voice of the past.

OW: In recent years under your leadership, NNTT commissioned “Asters” by Akira Nishimura and Dai Fujikura’s “A Dream of Armageddon.” In your mind, how are Japanese composers making their own mark on opera? How can opera become a part of Japan’s cultural identity?

KO: Speaking of the cultural identity, since we live in a time of diversity, I do not aim to let opera become part of Japan’s cultural identity. As long as the opera conveys a message through music, regardless of the nationality, it will be universal. This is the reason why “The Asters” by Akira Nishimura has been listed as one of the best operas at the International Opera Awards. His opera is based on Japanese medieval time, but the essence of the opera is the protagonist’s identity struggle as an artist.

On the other hand, “A Dream of Armageddon” by Dai Fujikura, has been based on the novel of H.G Wells. The opera develops in an ominous mood, giving a premonition to us before the totalitarianism or the massacres with the massive destructive weapons. Both works have a strong musical message beyond border.

OW: This upcoming season, you will be conducting “Simon Boccanegra” and “Tristan und Isolde,” two great operas from two of the greatest composers in opera history. What excites you most about taking on these two masterpieces? What are the challenges that you anticipate? What are your favorite moments from each work?

KO: As for Verdi, I have conducted his early piece “Due Foscari” towards “Falstaff.” Therefore, I am very interested in “Simon Boccanegra,” which should have a special place for Verdi since he adapted and staged it after 24 years.  We have already received great attention from opera fans, since Pierre Audi will stage for the first time in Japan. It is such a great pleasure to have Anish Kapoor for the stage set and great attentions have been aroused not only by opera fans but by all art lovers. My favorite moment for the opera is the farewell aria of Doge, who was poisoned and counting his last moments of life, whose touching phrase was followed by the moving ensemble including the daughter Amelia departing his father and chorus.

As for “Tristan and Isolde,” this was the memorable production for me, which I conducted in 2011 in NNTT long before my tenure. Beautiful production by David McVicar, with whom I collaborated in “Don Giovanni” as general music director at the theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. I brought this production for the Japan Tour of La Monnaie.

My favorite moment of “Tristan and Isolde” is the extraordinary contrast of the musical tension in the second act, while Tristan and Isolde’s emotions are intensifying and nearly reaching a peak and at the moment when the King Mark appears, it falls to the ground in an instance.

OW: Who are your favorite opera composers? What inspires you most about their work?

KO: It is very difficult to answer this question. There are too many attractive composers and I cannot choose just one or two. However, I love of course Mozart. In his opera there are numerous soloists, but he gives every role a personality with character even though it is small role. What a talent!

And Verdi and Wagner, of course. Libretto and music are inseparable in their works, thus they accomplish the form of Opera.

And then Janacek, Bartok, Britten, Prokofiev, Shostakovich. They all give great imagination building their own world in the 20th century, where all the music languages and styles were widened. I especially am attached to “The Fiery Angel” of Prokofiev.

OW: What are some operas that you have not conducted yet that you would like to bring to NNTT?

KO: I would like to bring “Wozzeck,” ”Lady Macbeth of Mstensk’’ by Shostakovich or Prokofiev’s ’’The Fiery Angel” in the near future.


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