Ever since Kazushi Ono was appointed as the incoming Artistic Director of Opera at Tokyo’s New National Theatre (NNTT) in June 2016 – he takes up the post in Autumn 2018 – Japanese opera-goers have been eagerly looking forward to what new artistic initiatives he will bring, with recent seasons having been a little on the safe side. As the former Music Director of the La Monnaie (2002-08) and more recently Principal Conductor of Opéra de Lyon, Ono has a wide repertoire, especially in 20th-century works (this summer he is conducting Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel in Aix-en-Provence), and he also has strong ties with cutting-edge opera directors.

Announced back in January, the 2018/19 NNTT programme contains some exciting new directions. Ono has set up some long-term aims including the expansion of repertoire (which involves staging more one-act operas in interesting double bill combinations, as well as Baroque operas which have never been performed on the main stage before), commissioning of new operas to Japanese composers every two years, and major collaborations with European opera houses (for example, a new Meistersinger production is planned for summer 2020 jointly with the Salzburg Easter Festival and Semperoper).

The new season opens with Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte in a production new to the NNTT. In fact, the staging by the renowned South African visual artist William Kentridge, with his trademark drawings and animated films, originated at La Monnaie in 2005, and has had many successful revivals at La Scala, Aix-en-Provence and elsewhere. Set in a 19th-century world of colonialism with Sarastro as a colonial overlord, the production explores both the benevolent and violent sides of such a rule and should provide a thought-provoking season opener. Roland Böer, conductor of the Scala revival, takes the baton. The cast fields a healthy mix of home-grown and international singers: Steve Davislim (Tamino), Andrè Schuen (Papageno) and Sava Vemic (Sarastro) all make their NNTT debuts, while acclaimed soprano Masako Hayashi (Pamina) leads the Japanese forces.

Ono himself will conduct two new productions in his first season. Firstly, the world première of Asters in February, a commissioned opera from Akira Nishimura, based on the novella Shion Monogatari by Jun Ishikawa (1899-1987). Set in the Japanese Middle Ages, it is a Gothic tale about a provincial governor who becomes obsessed with pursuing the Japanese art of archery, which eventually leads to his downfall. It will be the first full-length opera for Nishimura, a composer mainly respected for his orchestral oeuvre. Director Yoshi Oida, whose recent works include Madama Butterfly for Gothenburg and War Requiem for Lyon, is sure to create an imaginative staging.

Ono also conducts a new production of Turandot in July, directed by Àlex Ollé of La Fura dels Baus, with an international star cast including Iréne Theorin and Jennifer Wilson in the title role, Teodor Ilincăi and Simon O’Neill as Calaf and Eri Nakamura and Ryoko Sunakawa as Liù. This is a joint production with the Tokyo’s Summer Opera Festival 2019-20, and notably the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra, where Ono is Music Director, will play in the pit. NNTT doesn’t have its own pit orchestra and during the season the Tokyo Symphony and Tokyo Philharmonic share the duties in the pit, except in rare cases.

The final new production is a double bill of Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy (the first staging at NNTT) and Puccini’s comedy Gianni Schicchi – linked by their setting in Renaissance Florence. Two fine baritones are cast: veteran Russian Sergei Leiferkus, also a wonderful actor, will play the jealous husband Simone in A Florentine Tragedy, whereas the buffo role of Schicchi is taken by the highly sought-after Spanish baritone Carlos Alvarez. It would be interesting to see whether the Japanese creative team, headed by director Jun Aguni, will try to link the two operas in a meaningful way.

Musically, the pick of the revivals is Tannhäuser in Hans-Peter Lehmann’s production, last seen in 2013. Heldentenor Torsten Kerl returns as Tannhäuser, Roman Trekel takes his signature role of Wolfram, and rising Latvian soprano Liene Kinča makes her house debut as Elisabeth. Asher Fisch, one of today's finest Wagnerians, conducts. Also Massenet’s Werther has an enticing cast with distinguished mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura as Charlotte – surprisingly her role debut – and Saimir Pirgu (who has recently had a successful debut at NNTT as Nemorino) as the suffering Werther. Nicolas Joël’s production is conventional, but with this cast and Paul Daniel in the pit, it should make French opera fans happy. Francophiles can also look forward to the revival of Carmen toward the end of 2018.

It can seem rather ironic how popular Madama Butterfly is in Japan, considering how badly Cio-Cio-san is treated, but opera is a staple of the NNTT repertoire and Tamiya Kuriyama’s classic production makes its return in June 2019. Music Director Ono has hand-picked Italy-based Japanese soprano Yasko Sato as Cio-Cio-san – she is currently in demand internationally in the role, having sung her in Florence, Parma and Seattle.

Meanwhile, the NNTT’s ballet company, National Ballet of Japan (NBJ) under the directorship of Noriko Ohara has an exciting season ahead, which opens with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Christopher Wheeldon in November 2018, as a co-production with the Australian Ballet. This will be the first time for a Japanese ballet company to perform this work and the audience will surely love this dazzling production of colour, fun and fantasy, full of vibrant characters straight out the novel.

The winter holiday season will see The Nutcracker (newly choreographed by Wayne Eagling last season) in December, followed by three performances of a “New Year Ballet” programme in January, a triple bill consisting of the Les Sylphides, Petrouchka, and a brand new production of The Firebird by contemporary choreographer Megumi Nakamura. She spent several years in dance companies in Europe including the Nederlands Dans Theater, and since her return to Japan she has worked regularly with the NBJ.

Aladdin makes a welcome comeback in June 2019, a work originally created for NBJ in 2008 by David Bintley, the company’s former Artistic Director. The work has since entered the repertoire at the Birmingham Royal Ballet and Houston Ballet as well. JAPON dance project is the highlight of the contemporary programme, a collaboration between the Monaco-based choreographic group of Japanese dancers and the NBJ. In their third project together, they will present a new work Summer/Night/Dream based on Shakespeare’s popular masterpiece. 


See the full listings for the season. 

This preview was sponsored by New National Theatre Tokyo.