An Interview with ROBERT CARSEN, Opera Director
Let's take a look at what some celebrities and those leading in the field of international performing arts say about Kabuki...
Here is an interview with Robert Carsen, Opera director.
Larger Than Real Life
Kabuki is a powerful emotional experience !
Robert Carsen, one of the most sought-after stage directors on the operatic scene, has recently visited Japan for the sixth time, this time bringing his recent work, 'Candide,' that was performed in Kobe and Tokyo. He saw the Kabuki play, 'Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan' ('Ghost Story at Yotsuya,') at the Shinbashi Enbujō in August, 2010, and these are his impressions of that Kabuki performance.
> How did you enjoy Kabuki today?
It was absolutely remarkable.
I have seen quite a few Kabuki performances before, but this was one of the most intense performances I can remember having seen. On every level, I thought it was extraordinary.
It was particularly interesting to experience the way the production developed and drew one deeper and deeper into the story. The performance was unlike other Kabuki programmes I had seen, as it consisted of one story, not excerpts from three different stories: this makes its narrative a little more similar to Western theatre.
Usually a Kabuki performance consists of 3 independent sections, for example, a dance, a traditional samurai story, and a human drama. But in the evening show this August, they performed only one story in its entirety, 'Yotsuya Kaidan'. This play by Tsuruya Nanboku IV is Kabuki's most famous and gruesome ghost story. It features the handsome but villainous Iemon who lives in poverty with his wife Oiwa and their new baby. Their neighbour wants Iemon to divorce Oiwa and marry his granddaughter, a scheme that Iemon agrees to because it would solve his financial problems. Oiwa is encouraged to take medicine, but this turns out to be a poison that terribly disfigures her face and causes her to lose her hair. Iemon, meanwhile, forces a local masseur to attempt to rape Oiwa so that he will have grounds for divorce. As Oiwa fights off the masseur's advances with a sword she accidentally kills herself by cutting her throat on the blade. Eventually, Oiwa's ghost, as well as that of another of Iemon's murdered victims, returns to haunt him.
With Western Opera, for example, the first act is an exposition... an introduction to allow you to get to know the characters. In subsequent acts the story develops as those characters are confronted with increasingly complex and difficult situations. 'Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan' is similar in construction.
And I must say, the acting was absolutely superb. Kantarō', who performed 3 different characters, including the heroine Oiwa and Yomoshichi, was extraordinary. He maintained such dramatic intensity and tragic power.
> What aspects of Kabuki appeal to you? The story, staging, acting, or music?
Ultimately, it has to be its emotion. And this is where language is no barrier at all. Of course, Kabuki is famous for its spectacular visual qualities: the sets, the costumes, the makeup... but it is the way those elements are put to the service of text and music, resulting in concentrated dramatic performances that create such a powerful emotional experience.
The cruelty of this particular story, the way Oiwa is treated by Iemon, for example, and how she is pushed to the limits of human emotion, is quite overwhelming. One feels no woman could suffer more than this, which makes you understand that punishment and retribution have to come through her ghost...
I have seen Ebizo Ichikawa XI play a number of other Kabuki characters, but they have always been more heroic, or more positive, so it was wonderful to see him play this deeply unpleasant character Iemon, constantly driven forward into cruelty because of his ego, eventually tormented by his conscience - just like one of Shakespeare's characters.
In the second section, the role of the comic servant, Takuetsu, is continuously horrified at seeing the terrible changes occurring to Oiwa. The way this scene is written - alternating grotesque comedy and horrific tragedy - reminded me again of Shakespeare. You also have this combination of the comic and the tragic in Kabuki. And the level of acting of both genres was always outstanding.
> Applying modern technology, and yet keeping with Kabuki tradition.
This time I recognized quite a sophisticated use of lighting, which I do not remember from my previous Kabuki experiences. I think this more complex use of lighting added greatly to the performance, and it made it quite cinematic at times. But also, some of Kabuki's traditional lighting principles were maintained. For example, in the famous danmari scene, the characters are supposed to be moving in the dark, yet the audience sees everyone very brightly lit - a wonderful effect and a powerful stimulant to the imagination. That is one of the classic, wonderful things about Kabuki. I appreciate the use of new techniques while firmly maintaining the traditions of the past.
A danmari is a wordless pantomime that supposedly takes place in total darkness. It features several characters all trying to gain possession of some important object. To offstage music, mutual enemies or strangers move slowly in a carefully choreographed manner, occasionally colliding with each other and, at climactic moments, forming beautiful set poses.
> Larger Than Real Life
All theatre, in any style, ultimately engages with the audience's imagination. It is not meant to be like real life. Even in the most realistic Western theatre, you don't forget that you are in a theatre with a lot of people sitting around you, and that you are sharing the experience with them. So it was with this Kabuki performance, which was perhaps more realistic in its narrative than other plays I have seen before (even if a ghost was involved!): the traditions and the ritual, stylized nature of the performance were strongly communicative.
> Seeking a Different Culture
I think most Westerners coming to Japan are hoping for a powerful and meaningful encounter with a different culture. On the one hand, on the surface of Japanese society and culture, westerners see and recognize modern buildings and shops with brands of clothes we know and with which we are familiar. But on the other hand, we are in constant search for the uniqueness of Japanese culture, the "otherness" which is totally different from our own. Kabuki unquestionably provides us with that "other" experience.
> Did you know that most Kabuki productions have no director? In most cases, the main actor plays the role of director.
That is very interesting to know and proves yet again how well the Japanese work together.
We have brought our production of 'Candide' from the Chatelet Theatre in Paris to Japan, and are doing ten performances, in Kobe and Tokyo. We are all amazed by the Japanese team, how cohesively and efficiently they work together: the technicians, the chorus, the stage crew, the orchestra, in fact everyone involved in the production. And this work is permeated with a respect for the work itself, which has nothing to do with the individuals involved. There is an importance accorded to the work and there are traditions to be maintained. Certain things, such as the way at the end of a day's work the words, Otsukare sama deshita are spoken... These traditions are quite different from the West, where people tend to be much more individually minded.
As a matter of fact, in some countries in the West it is very difficult to find a good chorus, because people are so individual: they all want to be soloists and do not particularly want to sing together!
Here you do not have that problem. Of course you have star performers, such as we saw this evening, but it is very surprising to know that there is no director involved when you see something as complex as this production. There must have been a great number of timing and technical issues to resolve. You could not imagine putting together such a complicated production in the West without a director!
> How would you recommend Kabuki to your friends who have never been to Japan?
When you come to Japan, you just have to see it. It should be high up at the top of everyone's list of what to do in Tokyo.
I have seen Nō, Bunraku, Butō - all magnificent, intense expressions of Japanese culture, but I think that Kabuki is the most popular and the most accessible of them all.
And people should not be worried that they will not understand it. Because the power of the communication is so intense, you understand the meaning, without needing to understand the individual words. Like all the best theatre, I think it completely transcends language.
And in any case there is the excellent simultaneous translation via the earphone!
Of course the way in which the text is spoken and even the sound of the voices is very stylized, just like in Opera. In real life, people don't speak in that way or sing, but we accept that without any problems in western Opera - and very often we don't understand the language that is being sung either. The conventions of Kabuki are very quickly appreciated. I love hearing the sound of the voices of Kabuki actors. The many differences of speech and the pitch of the voices, always communicating the emotion of the characters involved.
Although Kabuki deals with highly elevated emotions, it also deals with real people and their passions. It touches us and moves us - whether through laughter or tears. For me, Kabuki will always be an intense emotional and visceral experience, and one which remains with me for a long time after the performance has ended...
Robert Carsen - director
Born in Canada, Robert Carsen trained as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in England before starting work as a director. Among his productions are: Carmen, Fidelio, Dialogues des Carmélites in Amsterdam; Armide at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées; Ariadne auf Naxos in Munich; Mitridate at the Theatre La Monnaie, Brussels; L'incoronazione di Poppea for Glyndebourne Festival Opera; Salomé in Turin, Madrid and Florence; Iphigénie en Tauride for the Royal Opera, London; Candide for the Châtelet, La Scala, ENO and Kobe; Il Trovatore for the Bregenz Festival; Elektra in Tokyo and Florence; La Traviata for the reopening of the Teatro la Fenice, Venice; Der Rosenkavalier for the Salzburg Festival; The Ring Cycle in Cologne and Venice; a Puccini cycle (7 operas) and a Janacek cycle (4 operas) for the Flemish Opera, Antwerp; Orpheo ed Eurydice in Chicago; A Midsummer Night's Dream, Orlando, Die Zauberflöte and Semele for the Aix en Provence Festival. He has directed ten productions for the Opéra National de Paris: Manon Lescaut, Nabucco, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Lohengrin, Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Alcina, Rusalka, Les Boréades, Capriccio, and Tannhäuser.
His theatre work includes: Mother Courage and her Children at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan; Nomade for Ute Lemper at the Châtelet; Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in New York; Lady Windermere's Fan for the Bristol Old Vic; The Beautiful Game and Sunset Boulevard (Andrew Lloyd-Webber) in England.
Robert Carsen was made a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government, and he is an Officier of the Order of Canada. In 1992 A Midsummer Night's Dream received the French Critics' Prize, as did Candide in 2007. Awarded four times the Italian Critic's Prize (Premio Abbiati) between 2000 and 2010, he was also awarded the Spanish Critics' Prize (Premio Campoamor) in 2007. In 2008, he was artistic director and designer of the exhibition « Marie-Antoinette » at the Grand Palais in Paris. Among his future projects: My Fair Lady at the Châtelet in Paris, Rinaldo for Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Don Giovanni to open the 2011 season at La Scala and Falstaff for the Royal Opera, London.