I love opera, bluegrass, burger joints and fictional detectives. Mostly, but not always, in that order. Formerly of Dunedin, formerly of Sydney, now travelling the world with the tenor in my life (Stuart Skelton) and blogging as I go.
Japan was an adventure and a half. My experience of Asia until now had been limited to a few days in Hong Kong and a slightly challenging week in Taichung, neither of which has much to do with the immersion of six weeks in Tokyo. I had almost no idea what to expect. I mean, every new city is a surprise, but I've spent enough time lurking about European cities (and, let's face it, watching them on TV) to have a vague idea of what to anticipate from, say, Oviedo or Dresden or, should fate ever take me there, Munich or Milan. But Tokyo? Pretty much the only thing I was certain of was that I really, really needed to learn (finally) to use chopsticks.
Reader, I learnt, and Tokyo won me over. Six weeks attached to an opera – even one you're not in – isn't the same as a six week holiday or tourist experience, and there are still vaste swathes of the city I never made it to. That would be true of almost anywhere, but you feel it more intensely in a city as unfathomably huge as Tokyo. I've never seen so many city centres in my life: every metropolitan train station seems to spit you out into yet another gleaming shopping district, the likes of which you'd find only once or twice in other major cities. And maybe I'm a city girl, even more than I thought, but I loved that. The endless supply of department stores, the blinding glitz of the pachinko arcades, menu after incomprehensible pictorial menu. There was plenty my brain couldn't process, but it didn't matter: there was something about this infinite metropolis I couldn't help but love.
The people helped. Outside of the theatre, we almost never had a common language, but the people I met were friendly, welcoming and helpful to a fault. I never felt self conscious or out of place and whether our conversations took place in broken English, barely existent Japanese (I arrived with two words and left with maybe five) or a language wholly composed of gestures and smiles, they were unfailingly patient with me and we almost always got where we needed to go eventually. Yes, it was a challenge discovering how few menus – at least in Shinjuku, where we were based – had English translations, but almost every restaurant provides visual aids, and besides: the range of ready made food at our local (24 hour!) supermarket left Tesco in the dust for both deliciousness and value for money.
Our six weeks weren't entirely (if you'll forgive the Grimes pun) plain sailing. The fact that I don't eat fish or seafood was as inconvenient as you might imagine in the home of sushi and sashimi, and we never did find a way to make taxi drivers understand where we were staying, so thank goodness the Hilton was near our building: everybody understands Hilton. But for me the occasional bumps and the odd privation – I did miss Craig Ferguson and Mexican food – disappeared in the midst of such a fascinating and delightful place.
And oh, the adventures. The Autumn Festival we stumbled upon quite literally around the corner from our hotel, complete with street processions and night markets. The exquisitely arrayed department stores and their overwhelming food halls, where your eyes take in so much that you forget you haven't actually bought or eaten anything. The Yamaha Centre in Ginza, with its floor after floor of musical instruments, sheet music, classical CDs and anything else a musician or music lover could want – including a whole section of adorable stationery for music teachers. Toy shopping at Kiddyland in Harajuku, which has an entire floor just for Snoopy and his friends. The serene peace and natural beauty of the Meiji shrine. The mysterious expanse of the Imperial Palace, or at least of what little one can see beyond the moat and the high walls. And remind me, if I ever have the chance to go there again, to learn the Japanese for "where did you get those ridiculously cute shoes?" because believe me, it would have been dangerously useful.
I've already written glowingly about the theatre itself: its gracious announcements, spacious lobbies and intermission profiteroles. Backstage was also delightful if only in its simplicity. No labyrinths or hard-to-find doors, no gauntlet of stern security to run, and a host of lovely theatre staff always ready to help me if I managed just the same to get lost.
Stage door was even better. Some countries have a stage door culture and some don't, but I've never experienced anything quite like Tokyo. There were fans there waiting even as we arrived, two hours before the show, and fans afterwards even when we'd been to an hour-long reception in between. They clamour for autographs and take photos, and their supply of CD booklets and long forgotten concert programmes is amazing – and it doesn't matter if you're the title role or a relatively minor player, if you're in the show, they care about you. Hey, a few of them even took photos of me, which has never happened anywhere else – and then came back after subsequent shows to give us copies of those photos, which was a lovely surprise.
I took hundreds of photos – big surprise – and could have taken hundreds more. I've posted a few below. They're not particularly great photos, just iPhone snapshots, but it really wouldn't feel right to write about Tokyo without giving you at least a tiny glimpse of its myriad colours. It was a sensory overload, this city; surprising, overwhelming, sometimes deeply confusing but I can't deny it – I was hooked.
Shopping in Ginza.
Barrels of sake at the Meiji shrine.
Oh, one final thought: all opera houses should have a shopping centre, restaurants and a train station attached to them. Too brilliantly convenient for words.
I'm starting to wonder whether all the world's opera companies shouldn't start shiftily cribbing from Tokyo's New National Theatre when it comes to the running of their theatres. This is a place where the usual pre-show announcements about mobile phones and recording devices are followed by the very courteous suggestion that you refrain from leaning forward, as "this may obstruct the view of those behind you" – a warning I've wished for several times and never before heard.
The audiences are attentive and mostly inclined to stifle their coughs – or save them for fortissimo passages – and their reward, come intermission, is a selection of beautifully prepared sushi (not my cup of tea, but it looked excellent) and pastries. Profiteroles between the acts? Don't mind if I do. There were also opera glasses for rent or hire and even a selection of production photos, taken during the final dress rehearsal and printed up in time for Tokyo's avid autograph collectors to buy on opening night and bring back to stage door after the show.
The mini Britten photo exhibition was also a nice touch, as was having the restaurant's display menu signed by all the cast members. The foyer is spacious, the queues for drinks and facilities were manageable – despite what looked like a full house – and as for the theatre itself, well, I'd like to bottle that acoustic and take it with me everywhere.
But perhaps I should stop talking about the venue and say a word or fifty for the show, which, as you may or may not have picked, was Peter Grimes again, this time in Tokyo and in a production by Willy Decker. He of the infamous red-dress Traviata, which I happen to like a lot but is, I realise, not everybody's favourite. Maybe the same is true of this Grimes but on that I could scarcely comment, having, in the course of the final dress rehearsal, fallen quite shatteringly in love with it. It promptly broke my heart of course, but then I'd expect nothing less from a Grimes.
Decker has taken what should be a series of alienating tactics – a great abstract block of a set, an unrelentingly bleak colour and lighting scheme, and stylised direction which favours symbolism over realism at almost every opportunity – and moulded them into something which cuts so swiftly to the quick that it's not alienating at all. Horrifying, yes. Moving, absolutely. Not realistic and yet brutally real.
A chorus who move like a shoal of fish, hymn sheets brandished like moral manifestos; Ellen repeatedly placed on the wrong side of the curtain and scowled into conformity; Grimes forced to bear the coffin of his first apprentice throughout the Prologue; the boy's sodden jersey thrown callously from villager to laughing villager, as if we hadn't already felt the hypocrisy of Sedley's "Little care you for the 'prentice or his welfare." These are broad strokes, but they're carefully chosen and devastating in their impact, and if occasionally a touch of local colour or a comic aside is subsumed in the blackened heart of the whole, it's a small price to pay. The staging of the last moments of the opera, in which we see Ellen finally give way to Borough pressure and, spirit crushed, return to the oppressive fold, is a piece of cruel genius.
Is that enough of a love letter? I have a history of falling for Grimes productions – Neil Armfield's will never release its hold on me – and now I have another to tug at me. Our luxury cast hardly hurt either. Jonathan Summer as Balstrode, thirty years after singing the role on Sir Colin Davis's Grammy-winning recording and still a sensational interpreter of it, vocally and dramatically. Susan Gritton, our lovely Ellen Orford in Australia three years ago, continues to give gorgeous and ever more incisive voice to that role. And the tenor in my life, you know the one, is turning into his own arch-rival, insofar as every performance threatens to unseat all those preceding it – and if you've seen any of those, you know that that ought not to be possible.
Not to mention a thoroughly committed supporting cast, many of them Japanese and making what I expect are probably role débuts: this, after all, is the first British opera presented by this company. The chorus, too, deserve heaping praise. Grimes is no picnic even for an anglophone chorus, let alone those working in a foreign language, but this chorus needs no allowances made: they nail it, plain and simple. So too the Tokyo Philharmonic, under the loving and passionate care of Sir Richard Armstrong. For once the Sea Interludes aren't staged, and sure enough, this orchestra injects so much drama and so much scenic life, that staging would be superfluous anyway.
You've surely noticed by now that I am too diplomatic – or, more likely, too much of a wimp – to offer anything but positive thoughts about productions in which my tenor is involved. But maybe you've also read between the lines of that diplomacy from time to time: even a relative Pollyanna like me can't love everything, all of the time. No such evasion or glossing over in the above. It truly was wonderful and I truly did love it. And just when I thought Peter Grimes might have to give way to Parsifal as my very favourite opera, along came this one to throw me well and truly into disarray again. There are worse ways to be, I daresay.