Under Kazushi Ono’s bold artistic leadership, a string of exciting new operas has emerged from the New National Theatre, Tokyo (NNTT). Following on from last season’s Asters by established Japanese composer Akira Nishimura, which received a nomination for the International Opera Awards, Dai Fujikura’s A Dream of Armageddon will be premiered this autumn. But before that, in August, the opera house will unveil the genre-busting android opera Super Angels, a brainchild of multi-genre composer and producer Keiichiro Shibuya.

Keiichiro Shibuya
I meet him at the end of March at the NNTT offices. The building is eerily quiet because all productions have been halted for the time being. Shibuya, in his mid-40s, is an artist with an exceptional creative mind who talks with refreshing frankness about his own work and philosophy. Although he is perhaps more familiar with the pop culture sphere, he is no stranger to opera. With his background in composition at the Tokyo University of the Arts, in 2013 he created a vocaloid opera called The End, starring an iconic virtual character, Hatsune Miku, which became a big sensation in both Japan and abroad. It received its European premiere at the Châtelet in Paris the same year and has subsequently toured the world from Amsterdam to Abu Dhabi. Through an unprecedented combination of operatic elements, pop culture and cutting edge vocaloid technology, it both challenged and mesmerized the audience. 

So, what attracted him to opera in the first place? “I didn’t like opera at all when I was a student,” he tells me, “but I created The End because I discovered that, as a collaborative project, opera could open doors to many possibilities. It has a clearly defined framework, compared to an abstract multi-media project, and one can reach out to a wider audience. Within that framework I can be extremely radical, which is fun: opera lets me do what normally I wouldn’t do.”

“The End had no human singers or orchestra; it was just computer-generated sounds controlled by me on the stage. Electronic music can sound simpler than a real orchestra, but I created a richer sonority by using advanced surround technology, so that the sounds were actually circling the auditorium. I used all the basic operatic forms such as arias and recitative, but with a twist: whereas in Western opera humans sing about human love or death, in The End I removed this human-centered idea altogether. My second opera, Scary Beauty, premiered in 2018, was written for a human orchestra but was conducted and sung by an android, a humanoid robot.”

Android, Alter 3
© Alter 3 (Supported by mixi, Inc.)

This android, named Alter 3, also appears in this new opera Super Angels. Alter 3 is a robot designed to evolve through interaction with the outside world. Developed jointly by the Universities of Osaka and Tokyo and mixi Inc., with the support of Warner Music Japan, its main aim is to examine the potential of the android’s communication with humans.

So, why has Shibuya decided to feature a human conductor and classically-trained human voices in his new opera? “It started from a proposal from Kazushi Ono for a new android opera. Kazushi and I had met socially about ten years ago through a mutual friend, novelist Masahiko Shimada, but had never worked together. Kazushi heard about Scary Beauty and came up with the idea of a new opera for the NNTT involving an android and a children’s chorus, to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics/Paralympics.” Obviously that has been put on hold for now, but some of the ideas have their roots in the occasion – for example, it's hoped that there will be ways to use this new opera to prompt a wider awareness of diversity in our society. 

Their novelist friend Shimada, an opera connoisseur who has written opera scripts before, was the obvious choice for the libretto. The story is set in the future, where a central AI “Mother” rules the country. When children graduate school, they undergo a DNA test to determine what job category they will be assigned to and have a nano-chip inserted. Akira (countertenor Daichi Fujiki) is deemed a failure and is sent to the back country, controlled by AI “Golem 3”, whereas his sweetheart Erika (soprano Rie Miyake), is selected to become an elite scientist. Akira, who yearns for Erika and for freedom, strikes up a friendship with Golem 3 and together they lead a revolt against the central AI. At the end, the Super Angels come to their rescue. 

“Actually, the conclusion of the script is still undecided,” Shibuya tells me. “I’m not completely happy with the current version of the ending, so I’ve requested Shimada-san to come up with an alternative ending. I’ve now composed the music for most of the scenes except for the ending. I’ve dedicated the last six months to this opera – originally a couple of concerts tours in Europe were scheduled in the spring but they’ve been postponed. Often I am composing up to 18 hours a day.”

Does he experience moments of inspiration, I ask. “People often ask me that, but I never lack inspiration,” he says. “Musical ideas are descending on me all the time and it’s only a matter of matching them with the text and then inputting them in the computer, which is the time consuming part. If you asked me to sing the opera, I could present it from beginning to end.”

The central role of Akira is sung by the rising Japanese countertenor Fujiki, who made an impressive Viennese debut in Reimann’s Medea some years ago. Many contemporary operas feature countertenors, such as Ligeti’s Grand Macabre, Benjamin’s Written on Skin, or Eötvös’ Three Sisters. “I feel most of the composers used the countertenor in a classical way,” says Shibuya, “but I want to use the voice in a more modern way: for example, to give it a melodic line that sounds like a vocaloid or to make him speak like a machine. I want the voice to sound non-human, if you like. I’ve even written an high A for Fujiki-san!”

But what musical role has he given Alter 3? “In Super Angels, Alter 3 mainly sings, although it sometimes conducts as well. I’ve got an idea of a scene where Alter 3 captures Kazushi’s conducting through the camera in its eyes, then it conducts the choir. The interesting thing about an android is that you never know what will happen. It may suddenly run out of control, or it may halt due to a programme error on stage. This is very different to a human-centred world and creates a completely different dynamic on stage, which the audience will not have experienced before.”

It’s evident that Shibuya has strong ideas about the production, including staging, design and even choreography. This comes quite natural to him, since in The End he was not only the composer but also the only human performer on stage, controlling all aspects of the music: he is used to being in charge.

“It’s very difficult to limit myself solely to composing,” he tells me. “As I compose, I invariably come up with ideas about the costumes and stage design, so I will need to collaborate closely with the Creative Art Director, Shizuka Hariu, as well as with London-based video artist Weirdcore – known for his amazing visuals for charismatic techno artist Aphex Twins. I met him in Tokyo a few years ago and I had wanted to work with him ever since, so I’m really excited about this collaboration.”

Super Angels is a project of unprecedented scale for the NNTT, as it involves the heads of all three theatre departments: Kazushi Ono (Director of Opera) as conductor, Eriko Ogawa (Director of Drama) as stage director and Noriko Ohara (Director of Ballet) as choreographic advisor. Furthermore, members of the New National Theatre Chorus and dancers from the National Ballet of Japan will take part, as well as the children’s choruses. “It’s certainly an ambitious collaboration and in such a intensive rehearsal period too. I can imagine it’s going to be a pretty fierce creative process!”

How does he feel about handing over the musical control to Maestro Ono? “Of course, I am excited about what Kazushi will bring to my opera, as I respect him hugely. He’s such a stylish conductor! But I’m not letting him touch the notes. The other day when I showed him the sections I’d composed, he suggested some alterations to the melody, saying it would sound better! So I had to politely tell him that everything I compose, be it simple or complex, I compose with total conviction, so I’m not changing anything!” he laughs. “Of course, I am happy for him to add rubatos and other expressive elements when conducting in the pit.”

At NNTT, the opera will be performed in Japanese (with Japanese and English surtitles) but Shibuya has plans to make versions in other languages so it can be transferred to Europe and beyond. “The story or the philosophy behind it is not Japan-specific, but universal. I hope the opera can fill both performers and audience with emotions and a sense of wonderment that they’ve never felt before. For me, that is the role of art.”

This interview was sponsored by New National Theatre Tokyo.