In your list of obvious cities to go and see opera and ballet, Tokyo may not loom as large as the usual European capitals. But a look at New National Theatre’s 2019-20 season reveals that there’s plenty of quality and variety to keep Tokyo opera-goers happy, whether they’re living in the city or just visiting, looking for traditional or progressive, looking for international stars or home-grown talent.

Kazushi Ono in rehearsal © Rikimaru Hotta
Kazushi Ono in rehearsal
© Rikimaru Hotta

The 2019-20 opera season runs from October to June, with approximately one production per month during that period. Most productions get 4-5 performances, a surprisingly high percentage of those being 2pm matinees. Things kick off on October 1st with an intriguing production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, with a largely Russian cast and directed by Dmitry Bertman from Moscow’s Helikon Opera.

If you’re on the lookout for Japanese singers, you’ll see that most of New National Theatre’s productions cast Japanese singers in some of the smaller roles, with some of them breaking into the larger ones (like Yatoi Toriki, who sings Olga in Onegin, or Shingo Sudo who sings Giorgio Germont in December’s La traviata). But there’s one production that’s packed with Japanese singers: The Tales of Hoffmann in April, in which the whole cast is home grown apart from Romanian tenor Stefan Pop in the title role. The starriest Japanese name you’ll find is Kazushi Ono. As well as being the Artistic Director of the theatre, Ono will be taking on the conducting duties for the season’s closing performance – dubbed the “2019-20 Japan↔Tokyo↔World Festival” – namely Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, featuring Thomas Johannes Meyer as Hans Sachs.

But if none of that interests you and it’s the big international stars you want to see, you’ll have your opportunities, such as Danielle de Niese in Don Pasquale in November, Nino Machaidze singing Mimì in La bohème in January, or Miah Persson singing Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare in Egitto in late April – which also demonstrates that New National Theatre is prepared to go back in time as far as the Baroque, although the newest they get is 1913, with Richard Strauss’ Salome.

Giulio Cesare © Agathe Poupeney | Production of l'Opera national de Paris
Giulio Cesare
© Agathe Poupeney | Production of l'Opera national de Paris

The ten productions are all from the established repertoire, but provide a good sample across the range, from the classical tragedy of Eugene Onegin to the Italian melodrama of La traviata and La Bohème to bel canto buffo of Don Pasquale and comedies of a completely different sort in Hoffmann and Meistersinger. They also display a fair variety of directorial styles, from the usually straightforward psychological work of the late August Everding in Salome to the flamboyant colours of Philippe Arlaud in Hoffmann to the storybook style of Laurent Pelly in Giulio Cesare (set in a museum of Egyptian antiquity) to Damiano Michieletto’s distinctly up-to-the-minute updating of Così fan tutte, set in a camping ground deep in the forest. Così, by the way, has one of the strongest casts of the season, featuring Eleonora Buratto and Anna Goryachova as the two sisters, and bass Simone Alberghini as Don Alfonso, the eminence grise behind it all. The strongest cast of the season, at least on paper, is for Il barbiere di Siviglia, with Florian Sempey as Figaro (who we described as "dazzling" in the role in France last summer) and René Barbéra (who we described in Amsterdam as a “sunlit tenor with superb coloratura”) as Almaviva.

The New National Theatre Ballet’s season is also based on established classics. Sir Kenneth MacMillan features prominently, with his choreographies of both Romeo and Juliet and Manon. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a Nutcracker (even in Japan, apparently), and Wayne Eagling’s 2017 updating of the choreography looks nothing short of sumptuous. Another 2017 work is Beethoven Sonata, Megumi Nakamura’s work created for the National Ballet of Japan and inspired by Beethoven’s life and music.

Alice's in Adventures in Wonderland © Takashi Shikama
Alice's in Adventures in Wonderland
© Takashi Shikama

The National Ballet of Japan contribute Petipa’s Don Quixote as well a mixed New Year show and two takes on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: the Christopher Wheeldon choreography that has been so successful internationally and a uniquely Japanese take from Shuji Onodera, performed in “The Pit” (the New National Theatre’s 468-seat flexible performance space). Also in The Pit is the National Ballet of Japan’s yearly look forward to the next generation of choreographers, entitled “Dance to the Future 2020”.

It’s a carefully balanced season that holds plenty of variety for people taking their first steps into opera and ballet, as well as plenty of quality for the more experienced.

This article was sponsored by the New National Theatre, Tokyo
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