“According to the critic, my staging was
like the Starbucks coffee he had in Japan.”
Working on musicals and opera projects worldwide, the stage director Amon Miyamoto is one of the most prominent Japanese directors. In the U.S., he is known for directing the 2004 Broadway revival of Pacific Overtures, which gave momentum to his international career. At the East Coast premiere of Tan Dun’s latest opera, Tea: A Mirror of Soul, Mr. Miyamoto chatted with Chopsticks NY and revealed his passion for theater.
How did you become involved in Tan Dun’s opera Tea: A Mirror of Soul?
It came out of the blue. I was contacted by my agent in New York and told that Tan Dun was looking for an Asian stage director for his Tea: A Mirror of Soul and he appointed me. He was eager to find an Asian director, and somehow he ended up choosing me. Actually, the artistic director of the Netherlands Opera directed the TEA eight years ago in Japan. It was well produced, but maybe because it was performed in a concert hall it was a bit less theatrical. Tan Dun asked me to interpret it in a different way, so I decided to emphasize the story more. This is my version that was performed in Santa Fe for its U.S. premiere.
While directing, where did you put the most effort?
I don’t know that the word “effort” is right in this case, but when directing for the stage I place the most importance on my first impression when listening to the music or reading the score. Let’s take Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures as an example. The 70s version was presented in Kabuki style with gorgeous orchestration, but when I listened to the music carefully, I thought “It’s not Kabuki, but it’s more like Noh style.” I found something very simple, minimalist, in Sondheim, and so I created a version true to what I thought. And Sondheim loved it. In the case of Tea, the original version featured simplicity and was presented in a Robert Wilson-ish, abstract style. But when I listened to Tan Dun’s music, I felt different. Since he often composes for films, his music is bold and dramatic, maximizing percussion sounds. I wanted to emphasize such a dramatic element and make it more like Chinese opera—a dream world reproduced by blending Chinese opera and Kabuki with strange colors and exaggeration. This is why my version is flashy. Tan Dun is influenced by Chinese opera and incorporates a lot of screeching, metallic sounds into his music in interesting ways. I wanted to visualize that.
The story is such a spectacle––a Japanese tea master embarks on a quest to find The Book of Tea in China….
I’ve always liked tea, to tell the truth. In my elementary school yearbook, I attached a note to a photo of my face that said, “I will be the head of the Urasenke School.” [laughs] Most children dream of being a pilot, soccer player, star, et cetera, but I was quite different. Because of that, I could be hardly befriended with my classmates. [laughs] Anyway, I’m just thrilled when it comes to tea. The story of Tea is inspired by an actual event and roughly based on the book written by a Chinese “tea saint,” Lu Yu. So I was very interested in that aspect, and at the same time I wanted to expand the world of Tan Dun. So I opened my arms and welcomed it when I got the job offer.
Opera and musicals are two different art forms. Did you incorporate what you have developed in musicals into this operatic expression?
You could say that. Subconsciously, I might have tried to make it easier for the audience to understand. Musicals fundamentally depict everyday life, as you see on Broadway. On the other hand, opera can fly high into the universe with the power of music. Its world is tremendous. Having music all the time may also help expand the world, and I respect that. Keeping this in mind, I wanted to pull out the magnetism of the story, of which even Tan Dun might not have been aware, and to show the story––like Mozart, not like Wagner. As Mozart did, I wanted to make the drama easier to understand while also featuring human relationships.
Would you characterize the experience of producing a project in the U.S.?
Simply, Americans love discussion. They want to embrace their project. From my experience, I’ve noticed that at least three different auditioning patterns exist. In Japan, for example, the audition ends amazingly on time. Everyone is awfully modest, and dead silence dominates the entire audition. So I have to cheer people up by cracking silly jokes. That’s one pattern. In the U.S., we have a tremendous number of participants, and they know what they are doing and what they are supposed to do in the audition. So I don’t have to make them relaxed. Everything progresses in a businesslike fashion, and no questions are brought up. In London, on the other hand, those auditioning ask me before delivering the lines, “What do you mean by that? Who should say this line to?” They don’t want to go in a different direction from what they think I am looking for in the performance, and they try to avoid expressing themselves just as who they are. I find it interesting to know the little differences among cultures. As for working on U.S. productions, actors give me spontaneous feedback while I’m directing––for example, “Wait a minute, it might be unnatural for me to walk to this way.” So I find it’s easier to work with them, and I feel we make the project together. In a Japanese production, everyone listens to what I say obediently, but sometimes people bring up objections after the project is over. I can’t do anything then if I’m told, “I didn’t want to move that way, to tell the truth…” [laughs]
Speaking of cultural differences, do you think being Japanese influences your standpoint in the international world of theater?
Yes. I’ll tell you about one review that appeared in The Village Voice regarding my version of Pacific Overtures at Lincoln Center. According to the critic, my staging was like the Starbucks coffee he had in Japan. [laughs] I thought “What?” at first, but it unfolded like this: the very first Starbucks coffee was carefully crafted to produce a supreme flavor, but as the franchise has expanded, the original spirit has dwindled. A cup of coffee the critic had in Starbucks in Japan made him think, “Oh, this is the coffee that Starbucks initially wanted to make.” Likewise, Pacific Overtures was originally made by Americans, but my version reminded him of what was lost as time had past and reassured him of how much heart was put into the production in the beginning. When I read the review, I felt very honored.
It’s a wonderful critique.
I was quite happy about that. We Japanese are people who appreciate the spirit behind things, in my opinion. We are people living in a culture that treasures things no matter how small they are. I think that’s what we can let the world know. This June, my version of The Fantasticks will open in London’s West End, but there is no reason that the director should be Japanese––no exotic settings, no nothing. But I think it’s meaningful for me to take this project because I’m sure I can revive it using my ability to take good care of small things, one by one, with the mind that I have as a Japanese.
So are you conscious of your nationality while producing?
If I’m asked whether I bear the Japanese flag, the answer is no. Of course, I love Japan and I am truly grateful for being born Japanese in a culture that has been established for a long time. I want to spread the appeal of Japan, but it does not mean I bear the flag. I really want to say that there are so many wonderful things in Japan and want everybody to love the country.
Would you recommend some destinations or things to do in Japan for Chopsticks NY readers who are planning to visit?
What I recommend most is Naoshima Island in Kagawa Prefecture. I have visited more than 15 times. Naoshima is a place that Japan should be proud to share with the world. With a museum designed by architect Tadao Ando, Naoshima is full of art that is exhibited with heart and care. Each artwork is presented so that someone could contemplate it for 100 years and still not get tired of looking at it. For example, visitors have to take off their shoes when they go to see the Monet. They can feel the beautiful, tiny white pebbles of the floor under their feet. While walking in the enormous gallery, they can witness Monet’s painting in natural light. There is no artificial light at all. People also can see works by the world’s greatest living artists, many of whom love the idea of this museum. Including Naoshima, the area around the Seto Inland Sea becomes more and more exciting. If you are interested in art even a little bit, this is the place I recommend you visit. You can appreciate Japan’s sacredness and courteousness as well as enjoy meditative moments and calm your mind.
This resonates with what you previously said about the Japanese ability to rediscover things with appreciation.
Absolutely. It’ll definitely amaze you.
——– Interview by Hideo Nakamura
Born in Tokyo, Japan. Beginning his career in theater as an actor and choreographer, he went to study in London and New York for two years. When he returned to Japan in 1987, he made his debut as a director with an original musical, I Got Merman, winning the National Arts Festival Prize. In 2004 Miyamoto became the first Asian ever to direct a Broadway musical, Pacific Overtures, which received four TONY award nominations. In 2008, he conceived and directed Up in the Air, a new musical composed by Henry Krieger. His directing credits in 2009 include Verdi’s La Traviata, Bertolt Brecht’s The Three Penny Opera, and Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. His upcoming project is The Fantasticks, opening on London’s West End at the Duchess Theatre in June 2010. Miyamoto has been named the Artistic Director of Kanagawa Arts Theater, which will open in 2011.