While opera houses in many parts of the world suffered enforced closures under national lockdown rules, the New National Theatre, Tokyo mostly kept its doors open to reduced, socially-distanced audiences where possible. Sometimes, those doors had to be closed and the company adapted, either postponing productions or streaming them from an empty Opera Palace. Its casting had to be flexible too. Keen to maintain an international roster of opera stars, quarantine regulations sometimes ruled out singers from appearing. When the NNTT lost its Siegmund for the revival of Die Walküre, two Japanese tenors learnt the role at short notice – one for Act 1, one for Act 2 – to step in and save the show! Such resourcefulness has helped keep the house producing and it continues its ambitious programming into its new 2021/22 season with three new opera productions, plus three new ballet programmes. 

The season opens with a once-upon-a-time fairytale – Cinderella. Not Prokofiev’s ballet, although that returns in Sir Frederick Ashton’s classic staging later in the season, but Jun Aguni’s new production of Rossini’s popular opera La Cenerentola. Its plot varies a little from the traditional story – there is no pumpkin, no glass slippers (a pair of bracelets doing the job instead) and the fairy godmother is replaced by the kindly philosopher Alidoro, our Prince Charming’s former tutor. Japanese mezzo-soprano Aya Wakizono, who sings Angelina (Cinderella), has made a name for herself in Italy, studying at the Academy of Teatro alla Scala and the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro. Joining her are American tenor René Barbera, possessor of exciting top notes, and comic genius Alessandro Corbelli, who specialises in Rossini’s basso buffo roles. 

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
© Monika Rittershaus

Jens-Daniel Herzog’s staging of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg has already been seen at co-producing Salzburg Easter Festival (“a true Midsummer Night’s Dream”) and Semperoper Dresden. It was scheduled to appear in Tokyo last summer, but performances had to be suspended until this season. Wagner’s opera goes beyond comedy to explore with what it means to be human. Herzog sets it in an opera house (the Semperoper) with Hans Sachs (Thomas Johannes Mayer) as the artistic director of the theatre and Eva (Masako Hayashi) an aspiring diva. Kazushi Ono, Artistic Director of Opera at NNTT, conducts Wagner’s expansive score. 

The third new opera production is Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, directed by dancer and choreographer Saburo Teshigawara and conducted by Baroque specialist Masato Suzuki. Last year’s cancellation of Giulio Cesare means that Orfeo will become the first Baroque opera to be staged by the theatre. 

Miyako Yoshida is well known to audiences in the United Kingdom as a much loved former principal of both Birmingham Royal Ballet and The Royal Ballet. She took over as Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Japan last season and is keen to make her mark on standards, particularly in core classical ballet repertoire. She has chosen to open the new season in October by bringing in Sir Peter Wright’s stylish production of Swan Lake to the company for the first time, a version she would have danced herself many times. 

The National Ballet of Japan in Swan Lake
© Bill Cooper

Also new to the Tokyo stage is Sir Frederick Ashton’s classic Shakespeare ballet The Dream, set to Mendelssohn’s evocative incidental music. For its “New Year Ballet” production, Yoshida pairs it with George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, a nod to the Imperial Ballet of Russia, set to Tchaikovsky’s Third Orchestral Suite. 

In February, Yoshida presents her selection of “The Greatest Ballets” which includes new productions of Hans van Manen’s 5 Tangos and William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, his avant-garde nod to classical ballet, along with Grand Café from Roland Petit’s chic La Chauve-souris

Pelléas et Mélisande
© Festival d’Aix-en-Provence
There are notable international stars billed for various revivals next season, in addition to its home grown talent. Conductors James Conlon, Sascha Goetzel and Oleg Caetani all make their NNTT debuts: Conlon is at the helm for Der fliegende Holländer, starring experienced Latvian bass-baritone Egils Siliņš; Goetzel conducts Der Rosenkavalier, which sees Annette Dasch return to the NNTT stage for the first time since 2008; and Caetani presides over the revival of Die Zauberflöte. Among the notable principals next season, Eri Nakamura, who started out singing with the NNT Opera Studio, sings Madama Butterfly alongside Italian tenor Luciano Ganci. Anita Hartig sings Violetta in the revival of La traviata and Karen Vourc'h, Bernard Richter and Laurent Naouri star in Katie Mitchell’s celebrated Festival d’Aix-en-Provence staging of Debussy’s elusive Pelléas et Mélisande

The National Ballet of Japan also stages revivals of its Wayne Eagling’s popular The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, Ashton’s classic Cinderella and closes its season with Christopher Wheeldon’s highly entertaining creation, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with its tap-dancing Mad Hatter, slinky caterpillar and the outrageous antics of the Queen of Hearts. Grab your flamingo for a surreal round of croquet! 

Click here to view the season's full listings. 

This article was sponsored by the New National Theatre Tokyo