Females find new voice in Kayoi Komachi/ Komachi Visited noh-opera hybrid

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      Kayoi Komachi/Komachi Visited is not just a revolutionary new mix of western chamber opera with Japan’s ancient Noh theatre. It’s a rare chance to see the rarest of Noh performers: women.

      For the past six centuries, Noh has been almost entirely performed by men, but that is starting to change. This, despite a rigorous system to preserve the stylized performance that uses masks, chanting, and movement to tell stories of warriors, demons, madwomen, and magical deities.

      Joining the cast here are Japan’s Muraoka Kiyomi, one of the few women ever to attain full professional status in Noh; artist Mayuko Kashiwazaki; and Noh drum player Omura Kayû.

      “There are five schools of Noh—and a few of them have opened up since the 1950s or ’60s to train women as full professionals,” explains Colleen Lanki, the show’s director and librettist, adding the Komparu School of Noh, where Kiyomi and Kashiwazaki studied, is allowing more women to gain full status in the lifelong art form. “Each school has an iemoto, a head whose job it is to protect the tradition. That’s why this form still exists after 600 years.” Noh is considered one of the oldest theatre arts still performed today.

      Lanki spent years studying Japanese classical dance and Noh dance and chant at the Kita Noh School in Tokyo and is artistic director of Vancouver-based TomoeArts. She’s come to an understanding with the art form that has fascinated her for years.

      “The first thing you come up against is just being non-Japanese is a challenge. None from outside the country have become professional Noh actors,” says Lanki, who is a founding member of Theatre Nohgaku, an international group dedicated to traditional and English-language Noh. She’s speaking over the phone from rehearsal at Vancouver Opera’s Michael & Inna O’Brian Centre. “And I’m a foreign woman—I never even cared to or attempted to be a professional. Plus I started too late; you’d have to devote your life to it. I just love studying it.”

      Lanki also happens to love western opera, having sung classical music early in her career. And so it is that the two forms meld here, telling the unrequited-love story of Komachi, a ghost-poet haunted by Fukakusa, a man she made go through a series of tests.

      Colleen Lanki
      Trevan Wong

      In this innovative rendition, male Noh actor Yamai Tsunao plays Fukakusa, while Vancouver soprano Heather Pawsey sings the part of Komachi, each performing in his or her own style and language until a turning point in the story.

      “We’ve duplicated and echoed the language—sometimes you’ll hear English over the Japanese,” says Lanki, who drew from traditional Japanese texts and even Komachi’s own poetry for her libretto.

      Kiyomi and Kashiwazaki sing the part of a female Noh chorus, while Joseph Bulman and Peter Monaghan form an opera chorus. The haunting, ethereal score by composer Farshid Samandari weaves together eastern and western influences, with flute, violin, viola, cello, and percussion, along with the rhythms of Kayû’s Noh-style shoulder drum.

      Not surprisingly, because of the new territory it’s exploring, Kayoi Komachi is a huge challenge.

      “Bringing the art forms together has been a battle, but it’s been a battle worth fighting,” Lanki says, having just come out of an intense rehearsal. “For me the two [styles] emotionally could meld. But musically it’s challenging because the western has taken precedence a bit.…Having a big score and following a conductor: this is so not what they [the Noh artists] do.” They instead watch each other closely on-stage, ad-libbing when needed.

      Then again, there’s no way to fully train the western musicians here to perform in a more traditional Noh way: “We’d have to send all the orchestra and singers to Japan for 10 years to understand that,” Lanki adds with a laugh.

      Still, the struggle to bring opera and Noh together, pushing the boundaries of both forms, has been enriching for everyone involved—and should be for audiences, too. “I love both art forms, and to watch the virtuosity—to watch people where they’re actually doing it is absolutely incredible,” says Lanki, pausing to collect her emotions. “The moments that are working are just so powerful.”

      TomoeArts presents Kayoi Komachi/Komachi Visited at the Cultch from Thursday to Saturday (October 26 to 28).