Coloratura soprano Akie Amou’s international career began in Japan, and through teaching within the framework of Suntory Hall Opera Academy she now passes on her knowledge and experience to the next generation of Japanese singers. She had not actually planned to take to international stages, she mentions in our conversation. “The music itself and the love for it have simply always been in me. Ever since I was little, I’ve enjoyed singing, but initially I didn’t think about doing it for a living. Then I studied music, and my career eventually developed just like that.”

Akie Amou
© Akira Muto

After graduating from the Tokyo University for the Arts, a scholarship in 1993 first brought her to Stuttgart, then Berlin. Initially, she explains, “probably like every other singer”, she had planned to go to Italy for further studies, but as she loves Mozart, Strauss, Bach and Verdi equally, Germany appeared to be the best choice to work on German as well as Italian repertoire. In subsequent years, Amou not only won numerous prizes – a first prize in the third instalment of the Queen Sonja Music Competition amongst many others – but also took the direct route into the hearts of audiences. To begin with, however, it wasn’t easy to establish herself as an Asian artist in western opera business: there had been people who would “find it strange to have Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto sung by an Asian singer, for example”. She is delighted that this attitude “slowly changed over the past years; many well-trained singers from Asia now come to Europe and, if you sing well, all doors are open to you!” She also emphasises how very glad she is to have been given this chance to show her vocal skill at the time, because “the voice is what matters, after all.”

Her clear soprano thus led Akie Amou onto the big stages across all of Europe, where she sang Mozart’s Queen of the Night at Komische Oper Berlin, debuted as Blonde in Die Entführung aus dem Serail  in Geneva and was a frequent guest at Wildbad’s Rossini Festival. She is, however, particularly fond of Richard Strauss’ Zerbinetta: “Zerbinetta is my favourite role. I sang it for the first time in Reinsberg in 1995 – this was my European debut – and this character is just a part of me. I have since sung it in many a production, and I could sing it any time!”

Alberto Zedda conducts a rehearsal of Il viaggio a Reims with Akie Amou as Corinna

From the early days of her career, Akie Amou has had a close relationship with Suntory Hall, since she performed at its opening in 1986: not yet as a soloist, but “as a music student, I played a small part in this special evening because I was a member of the choir for the opening performance – Mahler’s Eighth Symphony – and it was a great experience.” One peculiarity of the concert hall, which was planned by architect Shōichi Sano with acoustic design by Yasuhisa Toyota (Nagata Acoustics), is the combination of two styles. The advantages of the classic shoebox shape of the likes of Goldener Saal in Vienna’s Musikverein and the vineyard style placement of the audience as seen in the Berlin Philharmonie are combined in order to offer an ideal listening experience from any seat in the hall. For singers, it equally offers “a great experience and beautiful sound, because the sound flows, and you notice how the voice develops.” Even though the sound is excellent wherever you sit, Amou admits she does have favourite seats if she is in the audience herself. “Personally, I very much like the sound to the side of the orchestra”, she tells me.

The hall’s architecture also makes staged opera productions, which have been programmed regularly for Suntory Hall’s Hall Opera® since 1993, a very special experience, because “you are seen from all angles when you sing. It’s not like in a typical opera house where the audience can only see a small section; here the contact is much more immediate and the audience becomes part of the production,” Amou describes the advantages and challenges of the 360-degree stage. A particularly fond memory arises of a production of Verdi’s Falstaff in 1996, where she, in the role of Nannetta, shared the stage with one of her idols. “I had been a big fan of Renato Bruson for a long time; I had admired him in several concerts, and then I had the chance to work with him and perform on the same stage – it was so incredibly amazing, I almost went insane. I could hardly believe it! There is my favourite singer, performing next to me – it was such a special feeling. And Renato Bruson also taught us young singers; he was very strict and sometimes already said ‘No’ when you had as much as taken a breath in, but he showed us so much, shared his knowledge and did everything for us.”

Akie Amou and Renato Bruson performing at the Verdi Gala in Suntory Hall
© Suntory Hall
The soprano sees her own teaching as an opportunity to pass something on. “It is my mission and my duty because I was given so much by great teachers. It’s also important to me that students don’t lose their passion for music. Even when something doesn’t work out so well, I can support them in maintaining their joy for singing!” She particularly emphasises the concept of Kultur des Zusammenarbeitens (culture of collaboration), a German word she came to know and appreciate during her time in Germany. “In Japan, collaboration in which teachers and students are equal parties often does not happen, but Suntory Hall Opera Academy focuses on joint learning and music making!”

Suntory Hall Opera Academy has been supporting young singers and pianists since 1993 and has been offering them the opportunity to further their studies and mature artistically. In 2011, tenor and conductor Giuseppe Sabbatini took over leadership as the Executive Faculty of the educational programme, in which students first take the Primavera course to work on the fundament of their vocal technique, before the Advanced course digs deeper into vocal training and extending repertoire. “In Japan, young singers often take on too difficult a repertoire too early,” Amou explains, “but first you need to have the technical basics. That’s why students of the Opera Academy work on those again first after graduation.” For a total of two years, new talents not only receive coaching in matters of technique; they also learn the intricacies of the Italian language and work on their expression and interpretation. “Compared to western artists, Asian singers don’t show emotion through facial expression that often; that’s why we need to work on that with young singers, so they learn to use their bodies effectively,” Amou explains. For this, they have the support of a team of coaches, all of which have had a successful musical career themselves and are thus not only able to teach technique and pass on knowledge, but can also give them one or two inside tips. Akie Amou outlines for instance that her own experience of taking part in singing competitions helps young singers prepare for their own competition performances, and she ingrains in them the importance of “showing everything you are capable of in those minutes, and to completely bare your soul in order to touch the jury and the audience. It’s not enough to sing beautifully, it’s got to have emotion and you have to enjoy your moment on stage.”

The Hall Opera® production of Das Rheingold at Suntory Hall
© Matthias Creutziger

In addition to workshops and master classes, new generation artists also are given the opportunities to perform, at Suntory Hall and elsewhere. “There will be a production of La traviata for the hall’s 35th anniversary, and this time Academy students will not only have the chance to attend rehearsals as understudies and give a small concert, but there will be a separate performance in which these young artists will appear and be able to gain experience.” One aim and vision for the future is to “cast in leading roles Japanese singers who have been successful in Europe and gladly return to Japan for a great production”. When I ask Akie Amou at the end of our conversation if, amongst teaching and appearances in Japan, she could be tempted to return to European stages, she promptly and euphorically replies: “Yes, of course! If anyone needs a Zerbinetta – I’m ready!”

This article was sponsored by Suntory Hall.

Translated from German by Hedy Muehleck.