By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Local composer Garett Fisher’s new project is a collaboration with the Takeda Noh Troupe, led by famous Noh theater actor Munenori Takeda. The “Tomoe + Yoshinaka” program, running Sept. 26th through Sept. 28th at Seattle’s ACT Theatre, will present Troupe’s version of the classic Noh opera “Tomoe,” plus Garrett’s modern-opera adaptation of the same story called “Yoshinaka.” Mr. Fisher took some questions over e-mail.
NWAW: How did you first become interested in Japanese Noh drama and Japanese culture in general? How did your knowledge of Noh drama grow and change over time?
Garrett Fisher: When I was at Oberlin, I worked in the conservatory’s music library. I catalogued all incoming CD’s and DVD’s and so I listened to a wide variety of recordings from different genres and traditions. While at Oberlin, I also spent a semester in London on a theatre program. Over the course of my time there, I studied various forms of theater in the college. It was then that I grew interested in many kinds of formalistic theater, including Chinese opera, Elizabethan drama, Ancient Greek tragedy, and Japanese Noh theatre. I thought that these forms’ structures–often based on simple, clear premises–created clear, grounded structures that supported my more fluid compositional style.
When I moved to Seattle, I had the opportunity to meet and work with performers interested in Asian music traditions. I got to know Taiko performers, as well as Noh performers. Noh dramas are often based on very simple plots. I’m drawn to how their simplicity gives way to a deep, rich undercurrent of meaning. The words can often mean multiple things at once, and sometimes the plot becomes secondary to the development of themes and metaphors. The concept of time in Noh drama is different than in Western drama –it’s more elastic. In Hollywood films, for example, there also seems to be a sense of urgency to the plot which I think reflects our modern world.
In Noh, there is an appreciation of silence and stillness, with the understanding that these elements can be as equally powerful as bombastic Wagnerian chords. Small, subtle gestures and movements can mean large things. I think Noh theatre has broadened my understanding of what “dramatic” can mean.
NWAW: What is the history and standard features of Noh?
Garrett Fisher: Noh is the oldest classical dance-dramas in Japan. It was developed in the 14th century from religious sources and folk myths. It is a combination of drama, music, and dance. Noh is also one of the five major forms of traditional Japanese theater. After 1374, Noh was patronized by the warrior class, whereas Kabuki (traditional theater) and Bunraku (classical puppetry) developed later for the common people. Noh is characterized by symbolic gestures and simple sets. There is no curtain between the stage and the audience, as in other traditional theater. The chief actor (shite) and his associates (shite-zure) wear various kinds of masks (Noh-men) to denote the characters they represent, such as an old man, a samurai, a young woman, a demon, an animal, or a supernatural being. Additionally, it is common for men to play the roles of female characters. As part of this evening, in the traditional Noh opera Tomoe (the first half of the evening, before my “Yoshinaka”), Mr. Takeda will perform the role of the woman warrior Tomoe.
NWAW: What is the story around which you’ve constructed your new opera?
Garrett Fisher: I first met Munenori a little over a year ago, while he was in Seattle performing. Because I don’t speak Japanese, our conversations have happened through translators. At one of our first meetings, we brainstormed on ways that we could bring Noh theatre to the United States. One idea was to present a double-bill, in which the first half was the traditional Noh opera and the second was a modern interpretation of the same story. Munenori suggested the Noh drama “Tomoe,” which is based on an epic love story that’s very popular in Japan. In the story, a woman warrior is not allowed to die with her lord, Yoshinaka, in battle. I thought the themes of sexuality and gender equality were quite contemporary and, on an abstract level, ones that we struggle with today. In the original story, the ghost of Tomoe tells of how she is still tormented by the past. The opera ends that way. I wanted to create an opera that complementedTomoe and served as some kind of response, one in which the story is somehow resolved. The theme of unrequited love also brought to mind Western stories, such as “Romeo and Juliet” and “Tristan and Isolde.” I’ve had fun finding ways to reference them in my own opera.
NWAW: How does your approach compare and contrast with older, more conventional approaches?
Garrett Fisher: Noh theatre is a codified and matured art form, centuries old. It requires of its performers a lifetime of training. My piece is not a Noh opera, but instead aims to be Noh-inspired. I use Western instruments and Western-trained singers, and an original libretto that’s mainly in English. As with other operas I’ve written, I try to incorporate more abstract elements of Noh theater and Asian sensibilities in a way that bridges the East and West.
NWAW: What were your goals, and do you believe you realized them?
Garrett Fisher: In creating “Yoshinaka,” I’ve hoped to create a piece that is inspired by the beauty of Noh in a way that Western audiences, who have little experience with Noh, can appreciate. I guess we’ll have to wait for the production to see if I’ve realized it. (end)
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.