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Kazushi Ono Conducts Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde'

Richard Wagner's classic opera Tristan und Isolde runs for six nights to March 29 in Tokyo. Conductor Kazushi Ono talks about his life and latest production.



Zoltan Nyari and Liene Kinca (©Rikimaru Hotta)

After 13 years, Richard Wagner's tragic masterpiece Tristan und Isolde returns to Japan. The New National Theatre, Tokyo (NNTT), will hold a six-show run of the opera between March 14 and 29. Opera and theatre director David McVicar directs the production, while conductor Kazushi Ono leads the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra (TMSO).

Set in the Middle Ages of lore, the opera depicts the doomed romance between two lovers. Hungarian Tenor Zoltan Nyari will make his NNTT debut as Tristan and Latvian soprano Liene Kinca will sing Isolde. 

Musical director at the TMSO and the Brussels Philharmonic, Ono conducted the opera's last critically acclaimed Japanese performance. Ono cut his teeth as a conductor across Europe's musical hubs in cities such as Munich and Zagreb. JAPAN Forward recently spoke with the conductor about his journey, vision for this latest production, and opera in 2024. 

Kazushi Ono Conducts the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra (courtesy of the New National Theatre, Tokyo)

From Tokyo to the Global Stage

Following the end of rehearsals, Ono emerges from the hall into the NNTT's high-ceilinged foyer. With his arms folded behind his back, he slowly and gracefully approaches me, a warm smile beaming. His softly-spoken voice and dignified movement belie the enormous and powerful energy he exudes in his conducting. 

Ono recollects his musical beginnings and how he came to be a conductor. "My father loved music, so we had a lot of records in the house," he says. "Beethoven's Symphony No 5 was a particular favorite." Listening to various classical recordings, Ono says he "would always conduct along to the music using chopsticks." Even as a child, Ono felt instinctively that he "did not want to be a composer, but a conductor." 

However, he explains, "I hadn't conceptually grasped the idea of 'conductor' at that age." Learning piano and later studying musical composition as a teenager, Ono realized conducting was a viable music career. "My parents were worried when I first told them I wanted to be a conductor," he chuckles. "But I enrolled in the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music in Ueno."

His education continued in Germany under Wolfgang Sawallish and Giuseppe Patane. Ono would go on to be the Chief Conductor of the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra and the Baden State Opera's music director. He has also held posts in La Monnaie, the Opera National de Lyon, the Barcelona Symphony, and the Catalonia National Orchestra. 

Kazushi Ono (©Rikimaru Hotta)

Tragedy and Dreams

Tristan und Isolde is not a short opera. Despite clocking in at almost six hours (including intervals), the drama is enduringly popular in Japan. Indeed, tales of tragic romance have captured the hearts and imaginations of Japanese people for centuries. 

Germany shares this cultural sensibility. "With the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry's ship, Japan opened up, and the country entered the Meiji period," Ono says. "After that, the tragic works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller found a highly receptive audience in Japan." 


Ono shares how aesthetic considerations of depicting tragedy informed the set design. "You'll notice many allusions to the moon in the lyrics throughout the opera," he relates. "Reflecting this, the moon is constantly present on stage (in various shades and colors)," hovering over Tristan and Isolde. 

"The suggestion," he continues, "is that, as long as the moon shines, they can be together. But as the opera ends and the moon sinks, we question whether it was not, in fact, the sun."

This central element of transience also embodies what Ono wants to communicate to the Japanese audience through this production. "Tristan und Isolde is a symbol of humanity's propensity to dream constantly," he opines. "Dreams are so infinitely boundless," he says, stretching his arms out and casting his eyes to the heavens. 

"What gets in the way and complicates things is the wall of sound of society in the real world. But dreams allow us a glimpse of the eternal within our own finite lives," he smiles. "That," he says, "is what Tristan und Isolde is about: the dream of love and the death of love. Experiencing the dream of eternity through love is an inexpressible freedom transcending the word's mere concept."

Wagner in the 21st Century

With digital-based entertainment media endlessly proliferating, I ask Ono if he has any apprehensions about the future of opera. "The way I see it is that you still get all kinds of people," he replies. "There may be more people these days compared to the past who have little interest in anything cultural. However, almost all six of Tristan und Isolde's scheduled performances are sold out," he informs me. "So while some are happy listening to their iPhones on the train, others still clearly enjoy going to the opera. I think it's the same in most countries, not just Japan."

Despite the beauty of his music and international popularity, some unfortunate lingering taboos surround Wagner. "We are all born with hatred," Ono sighs. "But I feel so sorry for those who can only hear hatred in Wagner's work. It is such a pity because I feel they are missing out."

Ono does not intend this to be his last time taking the baton for a performance of Wagner in Japan. He expressed his desire to conduct The Ring Cycle, an even more physically daunting task than Tristan und Isolde. "We have already had performances of the first two parts, Das Rheingold and Die Walkure, here before. If the stars align and the opportunity arises, I would love to take charge of Siegfried and Gotterdammerung," he smiles.


Author: Daniel Manning


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