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Dialogues with Noh theatre – Experiences of a stage director

by Aleksi Barrière

Japanese Noh, a form of musical theatre codified in the early 15th century, has been transmitted to us from that age through an uninterrupted tradition. It is now universally recognised as an exceptional artistic treasure, inscribed on UNESCO’s Lists of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. In this essay, stage director Aleksi Barrière reflects on his experiences with and thoughts about Western works inspired by and based on Noh theatre.

The level of craftsmanship that goes into each aspect of Noh, from the singing and dancing to the manufacturing of masks and costumes, is awe-inspiring. Many generations of Western visitors have been fascinated by the archaic and hypnotic power of its guttural chanting and slow, concentrated pace, even when they have not had access to its philosophical content, distilled from a layered tension between Japanese folk religions and Buddhism. Over the centuries, Noh evolved as both an entertainment for the elite and a dramatisation of religious beliefs and rituals, sometimes even serving as a ritual in and of itself. Hence, its flair for mystery is no accident and was even enshrined in its theory by its founding father, actor and playwright Zeami Motokiyo (c. 1363-1443). 

To the Western eye, however, that profound mystery tends to get blurred with the more trivial haze that surrounds all things foreign. This kind of exoticism relishes in keeping things obscure rather than tackling their substance.

For ten years now, I have been fortunate to explore my interest in Noh through my practice as a stage director. My access to the source has been mediated by a history and a series of encounters that have informed my approach. This route is a tricky one, one that meanders through many accumulated layers of Orientalism and cultural appropriation: Japan, and Noh theatre in particular, has been subjected to decades of exotification that has begotten art often riddled with misconceptions and misunderstandings – sometimes superficial, in the worst cases exploitative. How does one avoid and address such issues?

A traditional performance setting of Noh in Sado, Japan. The performer of the main role (shite) is located on the left, the instrumental group in the middle, and the chorus on the right side of the stage. Photo: Yoshiyuki Ito (Wikimedia Commons)

Cross-cultural traditions

Noh was known to me only through books and video documentation when, in 2013, I worked for the first time with an artist who had first-hand knowledge of the tradition. Conductor Clément Mao-Takacs, with whom I had recently co-created the music theatre collective La Chambre aux échos in Paris, introduced me to Claude Jamain, a versatile performer who has studied not only with a Japanese Noh master but also with the great renovator of mime Étienne Decroux and the legendary puppeteer Alain Recoing, among others. In the tradition of puppeteers freely combining techniques from different cultures, as long as they can master them, Jamain was creating a piece based on Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (1904), which is a setting of Friedrich Rückert’s autobiographical poems about the death of his children. These form an ideal material for exploring the process of grief that is so difficult to address with traditional dramatic means focused on visible action.

We decided to integrate this solo number that Jamain was working on into a music theatre performance we were preparing, entitled Tu ne dois pas garder la nuit en toi [You must not hold the night in you], in which Mahler’s song cycle was performed twice: first staged as a chamber opera about a mother grieving for the children she lost in a school shooting, then in a version where the same character revisits the stages of her process in a more distanced manner, while the dancer-puppeteer interpreted them choreographically using techniques borrowed from Noh. This was a way to embrace two aesthetics simultaneously (psychological realism and danced stylisation) while addressing traditions of Western interest in Asian cultures: not only puppeteering but also the work of Rückert, a translator of Persian and Sanskrit mystical poetry, who provided the China-fascinated pantheist Mahler with material that is not limited to the confines of his home culture. It is perhaps no coincidence that Jamain felt Mahler’s efforts to stretch musical time to be particularly well suited to a Noh-inspired choreographic work.

Jamain’s piece was specifically inspired by the vocabulary of one of the classical masked characters in Noh, the kyōjo, literally ‘madwoman’: a mother who is driven mad by the loss of a child and whose inner turmoil opens into a wide range of expression. This role is traditionally performed, like all characters in Noh, by a man. I happened to have a chance to revisit this archetype ten years later when I was invited to stage Benjamin Britten’s church opera Curlew River (1964) at the Urkuyö ja Aaria [Organ Night and Aria] festival in Finland in summer 2023.

Curlew River is based on the play Sumidagawa [Sumida River] by Kanze Motomasa (son of Zeami Motokiyo), a classic of the kyōjo genre. A wandering ‘madwoman’ is mocked by a ferryboat’s passengers for her ramblings, until they realise they have come to the tomb of her kidnapped son, who died as a result of his ordeal. After a collective prayer, the mourning mother is freed from her madness, as she can finally start processing the tragedy she has experienced. The process of adaptation and the solutions developed by Britten and his librettist William Plomer are a very interesting extension of the issues raised by such intercultural endeavours. 

Curlew River at the Espoo Cathedral. The stage is flanked by the instrumental ensemble on the left and chorus on the right. Structural elements of Noh are adapted and reconfigured; although they lay at the foundation of the piece, they are visible only by allusion. Photo: Heikki Nenonen

Importantly, unlike Mahler, Britten was inspired by actual performances of Noh he saw in Tokyo. Plomer, on the other hand, was well acquainted with Japanese culture, having spent a few years in the country. When staging his work, I had also experienced Noh first-hand during my trips to Japan.

Born from Britten’s and Plomer’s fascination for the story and the opportunity to import a foreign convention to tell it – with, in addition to ritual traits commonly sought in Noh, the possibility of cross-dressing that was somewhat queer-coded – their initial project was to create a work that would be a very direct adaptation of the original story. This was not devoid of exotifying tendencies, as Britten’s wishes expressed in his letters to Plomer reveal: “I am very keen on as many nice evocative Japanese words as possible!” (8 October 1958). However, both authors became aware of the pitfalls of this approach soon enough, and Britten realised that the Japanese element should actually be removed altogether: “I have been very worried lest the work should seem a pastiche of a Noh play, which however well done, would seem false & thin. I can’t write Japanesy music, but might be led into trying if the rest of the production (setting, clothes, moves) were Japanese.” (15 April 1959). Inspired by the recent English revival of medieval miracle plays that also lent their form to Britten’s Noye’s Fludde (1958), the collaborators rewrote the story as an English mystery performed by a fictional medieval congregation of monks in East Anglia, which is also where the opera was premiered.

The way this transposition was implemented is exemplary, and it is surprising how well the minimally adapted Sumidagawa text functions as a modern mystery play. Everything that can feel forced in translating a Buddhist parable into a Christian one is redeemed by the reconnection with a sense of the supernatural and almost pagan ritualism attributed to early Christianity, drawing attention to cross-cultural symbols (the madwoman, the wanderer, the ferryman) and the collective mechanisms of religion rather than to the preaching of a specific doctrine. Musically, Britten manages to retain certain colours of Japanese music and adapts in his own way the concept of awazu, i.e. the non-congruent rhythms of Noh performers, into a form of heterophony that is a bold addition to his own palette.

Britten’s music and Plomer’s text, as indeed their explicit wishes concerning the stage production, forbid making a pastiche of Noh in the staging of Curlew River. Rather, they are an invitation to apply the same method to the invention of a stylised physical and visual language that relies on translation rather than imitation. Our production did not look like Noh, but it retained some of its aesthetic premises, transposed into another framework. 

This type of translation comes with its own problem: in avoiding the exotification of the source, it also erases it. This is a common issue in translation in general, and in translation studies the two extremes between which Britten and Plomer navigated in their adaptation process have been termed foreignisation and domestication: respectively, either retaining a sense of distance to the original, i.e. exposing oneself to the dangers of exotifying it, or bringing it so close to one’s own world that any trace of the original, and of otherness, virtually disappears. In actuality, any act of translation or adaptation is a process of fine calibration and negotiation between these two extremes and as such requires awareness of the risks involved in both. 


Cross-cultural efforts in a globalised world

I am privileged to be able to work with my contemporaries – artists who have taken the challenge of intercultural dialogue much further and found ways to balance out foreignisation and domestication through actual collaboration.

In 2021, I was – again with conductor Clément Mao-Takacs – invited by the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan to create a new staging of Kaija Saariaho’s opera Only the Sound Remains (2015), a piece that combines many traditions of exchange. The libretto comes from an ancient chain of transmission: two Noh plays (Zeami’s Tsunemasa and the later anonymous play Hagoromo) in the adaptations published by Ezra Pound in the 1910s, based on the translation work done by the scholar Ernest Fenollosa with the assistance of Kiichi Hirata. Pound’s versions marked a turning point in Western access to Noh as a literary genre, if not a theatrical one, and sparked wide interest that informed the attempts of many Western artists to create Noh-inspired theatre, from Yeats to Beckett and Britten himself. Like the European tours of Peking Opera singer Mei Lanfang that gave avant-garde directors Vsevolod Meyerhold and Bertolt Brecht the intuition of forms of theatre expanded beyond the limits of naturalism, these translations paved the way to a creolisation between traditions furthered by the likes of Peter BrookRobert Wilson or Peter Sellars which, down the line, allowed my generation to actually have metabolised many elements of East Asian theatre even without knowing it. These include the heightened stylisation of gesture, scenography and costumes, along with polyphonic intermedia forms suited to the examination of complex narratives.

Kaija Saariaho’s music speaks from a similar position in that it is nourished by both long-term absorption of Japanese musical and aesthetic influences and her own participation in cultural exchanges with Japan, particularly her study of the pitch/noise axis of the shakuhachi, a bamboo flute known for its use in Buddhist meditation. The instrumental sound world of Only the Sound Remains is not an imitation of Noh music, despite a prominent role given to flute and percussions (as in Curlew River), but instead hints more broadly at the colours of gagaku, Japanese court music, rich with plucked string instruments (the biwa and the koto). Saariaho created a surprising intercultural interface by including a kantele, the Finnish box zither that in this context feels like an eerie intercultural in-between. The set-up as a whole – a chamber ensemble flanked with a vocal quartet functioning as a chorus – produces the effect of being inspired by Noh without actually borrowing anything from Noh music. 

The masked shite roles (the traumatised ghost of a fallen warrior and an air spirit trapped on an earth exploited by voracious men) are also treated with an entirely original solution. They are sung by a countertenor whose voice is transformed and ornamented by live electronics, hence in practice applying a double sonic mask: the singer’s own ‘head voice’ and the computer processing. This can be seen as an interpretation of the traditional Noh mask in a new medium. 

Only the Sound Remains at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan. The backdrop calligraphy is created during the performance by Kaiji Moriyama as part of his choreography. Techniques from different cultures are merged, much like the merging of spaces in the Noh play Tsunemasa, where a temple is represented on a stage located in a temple. Photo: Tokyo Bunka Kaikan / Koji Iida

My own staging work, then, was guided by the methodology of the music, and in this case it relied on creating a new mixed idiom in a direct interface with Japanese culture, specifically with dancer/choreographer Kaiji Moriyama, who in his work merges what he has learned from collaborating with an actual Noh performer, Reijirō Tsumura, into the already creolised medium of contemporary dance, influenced by both ballet and Japanese dance, butō. The question of coexisting with our ghosts and with each other in this world, which lies at the heart of the original plays Tsunemasa and Hagoromo, finds concrete tools in such collaborations.

The following generation is taking such concrete collaboration to the next level by creating cross-cultural works hand-in-hand. The next Noh project I will stage is emerging from the collaboration of Finnish composer Juha T. Koskinen, a former student of Saariaho’s, with Ryōko Aoki, a Noh performer who has taken it upon herself to commission over fifty new works for her medium from composers such as Toshio Hosokawa and Peter Eötvös. Koskinen being a keen connoisseur of Japanese culture who has already written for Japanese instruments and singers of Noh and shōmyō (a form of Buddhist chanting), this is an encounter between two eminent bridge builders between two cultures. 

The starting point for their forthcoming project is the Noh play Nonomiya, attributed to Zeami’s disciple Konparu Zenchiku and based on an episode from the 11th-century classic novel The Tale of Genji. The play is centred on the suffering of Lady Rokujō, a woman consumed by jealousy and melancholy in both life and afterlife after being abandoned by her lover for a younger woman. Koskinen had the idea to juxtapose the original material with a spoken monologue written by a Finnish writer, Selja Ahava – a novelist writing from the female perspective, like the author of The Tale of GenjiMurasaki Shikibu. Two versions of the same story, two voice types, two musical and theatrical universes, in friction and shedding light on each other: a new dream of cross-cultural dialogue, based not on projections or absorption but on actual conversation.


Conclusion: Battles ahead

The history of attempted dialogues with Japanese theatre is a legacy as rich as it is problematic, bearing inherent limitations we must keep learning from. They are lessons in the difficulties of translation, in the challenges of communication, and the necessity of a finely tuned calibration between the distant and the familiar in approaching the other.

In our time, the realities of cultural exchange are complicated by ever-shifting power dynamics, and in the case of Japan by an ambiguous legacy of exotification that has also occasionally been actively embraced on the Japanese side with nationalistic and/or commercial motives. In this context, we must be wary of concepts such as ‘authenticity’ that become tools of branding rather than a useful way of separating genuine artistic endeavours from derivatives designed to cash in on exotic projections. This doesn’t imply that complete relativism has to be embraced, as the value of intercultural dialogue lies precisely in trying to understand the other – be it in the form of an artistic object or a living person facing us – something that implies efforts, obstacles and many opportunities for frustrating misunderstandings and conflicts.

But that journey is transformative in ways that ought to convince us of its necessity and urgency. Not only are we struggling to find viable forms of coexistence on a global, planetary level and within multicultural societies; despite increasing resources, the aggressive homogenisation of narrative forms and aesthetics is submerging us in a numbing reality that has expanded far beyond the objects of mass entertainment, into every aspect of our lives. Noh gives us tools to question dominant dramaturgies of heroes and monsters and to approach processes of grief and transformation. Like natural processes, they find their value in their slowness and invisibility, and thus they call for forms of art that can make them tangible.

Aleksi Barrière is a French-Finnish writer-director who explores the many shades of interdisciplinary and intercultural collaboration through the means of contemporary music theatre. He is a founding member of the Paris-based La Chambre aux échos collective and works as a dramaturge and librettist with multiple composers.


Featured photo: Only the Sound Remains – Hagoromo section. Countertenor Michał Sławecki and dancer Kaiji Moriyama sharing the role of the Tennin (air spirit). © Tokyo Bunka Kaikan / Koji Iida