Matsukaze at the Lincoln Center Festival

Remember me? I went to see Toshio Hosokawa’s Matsukaze at the Lincoln Center Festival and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

Toshio Hosokawa’s opera Matsukaze
is in many ways a model of modern cross-cultural creation. Premièred in
Brussels in 2011, it sets a story from the traditional Japanese Noh
theater in a more or less Western operatic framework. And the text is in
German. But unlike some other recent efforts to merge Asian and
European traditions (such as Tan Dun’s The First Emperor), it
is a fully-formed and rewarding work of art rather than a self-conscious
experiment. Despite a pedestrian production, Lincoln Center Festival’s
presentation is a valuable opportunity to hear Hosokawa’s impressive

You can read the whole thing here. I have been absent recently due to a) too much work and b) a certain absence of material. I have a few plans for August but things will be quiet for a while. I am sorry to have missed Michaels Reise um die Erde, also at the LCF, but it’s too bad they scheduled two of their most interesting events for the same three nights. I went to Matsukaze on the first of the three, and the other two I spent at a wedding.

One thing I didn’t mention was the casting of two Asian (Korean) singers in the roles of the sisters. Maybe this wasn’t intentional, there are lots of fine Asian and Asian-descent singers out there, but I wasn’t sure what to make of it. If it was intentional, it seems to me to be unnecessary and possibly problematic. If it wasn’t, well, I’m glad I didn’t mention it.

Also, I liked Paul Griffiths’s program notes. I wish certain other NYC opera groups would follow suit.

See you from the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s Figaro, if not sooner.

Photo copyright Olivier Roset.

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  1. Hi there. I'm wondering what you would find problematic about intentionally casting Asian singers to portray Asian characters. I actually have no idea if it was intentional, but if this were a movie, wouldn't it be more problematic to have an Asian character portrayed by a white performer in 'yellow face'? Best wishes.

  2. First: this differs between countries, and I'm speaking from a US perspective only.

    In most stage productions, particularly in opera, it's assumed that the audience is race blind. We can take a hint that the singer or actor's character is a different race from them and then go with it without needing a lot of awkward blackface/whiteface/etc. For lots of historical reasons, there are some exceptions to this (e.g. usually Othello, but not Otello), but usually it is assumed that a person of any race can play any character.

    In this opera, all the characters are Japanese, so why would the women be cast as race-specific when the men are not? And secondly, there is nothing about the opera or staging that singers of any race couldn't do. So I think defining these characters as uniquely Asian is somewhat problematic. But, again, I don't know if that's what they did.

  3. I should add that both of the singers here were Korean, not Japanese, which is a whole different issue, and one that I don't know enough about to comment about.

  4. I have to admit that when I first heard about this opera and found out that the premiere production in Germany had an all-white cast, my gut reaction (as an Asian) was "Really? They couldn't find good Asian singers?".

    But yeah I'm sure that a compelling performance would have quickly chased those thoughts from my mind (and who knows how many good Asian singers — males especially — there are in Europe who would be able to sing this tricky music accurately and with convincing diction.)

    Since there is a surplus of excellent smart sopranos with good German diction in the US, if there was a preference toward casting Asian women, I personally wouldn't have a problem with it (acknowledging that I'm probably at least subconsciously biased toward my 'race'), but I have no idea if that's what they did. Again, with regard to the males, even if they wanted to cast full blooded Asians (the fisherman is half, BTW), the pool of Asian basses who could sing this music is pretty shallow.

    I caught a few performances of this show, including its run in Charleston, and a very common audience reaction was something along the lines of "Why wasn't it written in Japanese?" or "It's so jarring to see Japanese characters singing in German!". And surprisingly, these reactions seemed to come equally from both opera newbies and opera veterans alike — the latter of whom really ought to be well used to the concept of operas being sung in a language different from the original story — but for some reason the language/racial aspect of this particular opera seemed to blow a lot of people's minds a little, despite US opera audiences supposedly being race blind (maybe that only applies to operas in the standard rep?).

    Anyway, I'm not arguing or disagreeing with you. Just rambling and thinking through this out loud and trying to figure out if perhaps my own feelings about this issue are problematic. 🙂

    Thanks for replying to my comment!

  5. The librettist is German, and one of the original producing companies was in Berlin. I wonder if an English singing translation would have been a good idea for the American premiere.