31 Jul 2015

Stefano Mastrangelo — An Italian in Japan

I’m interviewing Stefano Mastrangelo in the immediate aftermath of his conducting La Traviata for the Chofu City Opera in Tokyo on 22 November 2014; he conveys an air at once of tiredness and exhilaration.

A big man, oozing Italian warmth, he has been conducting in Japan for fourteen years, teaching in leading Japanese music schools, as well as finding time for master classes back in the Conservatorio Santa Cecilia, Rome, where he was a student in the past. He sees himself as a cultural ambassador, not just promoting Italian opera in Japan, but opening Japanese performers and audiences to a particularly Italian way of doing Italian opera.

He explains that he grew up “inside of the opera,” and has loved the medium as long as he can remember. Both his parents were opera singers. His father, the baritone Giulio Mastrangelo, travelled the world in the course of his operatic engagements; Stefano was conceived in England and has the middle name “Sydney” for his father was singing in Sydney, Australia, at the time of his birth in 1955. Many of his parents’ friends were opera people. He learned the French horn from an early age, and entered the Scala orchestra in 1977. He was drawn into conducting by Giuseppe Sinopoli, whose assistant he was for fifteen years. He remembers Sinopoli as “a very, very difficult person,” but also a huge inspiration; in his own conducting he considers himself “strongly influenced” by the older conductor and “continuing Sinopoli’s work in Japan.” Indeed he remembers Sinopoli saying that “the future of opera lay in Asia, and especially Japan.” Mastrangelo understands this to mean that not only was there a huge audience for European classical music in Japan, but a great willingness to cherish and nurture performance traditions.

Mastrangelo does indeed see the future of opera in Japan as a lot more promising than anything Europe has to offer. “Opera in Europe is finished,” he exclaims warmly at one point, before dilating at length on the problems facing the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome - problems that he feels are part of a wider cultural crisis. He is unsparing in his diagnosis of where opera in Europe has gone wrong. There has been far too much state subsidy, creating an unreal production atmosphere in which the audience was not considered to matter very much. The major European companies have bloated administrations, employing dozens of staff who may have little or nothing to do with music. And far too many productions have relied on striking, often shocking, visuals that have seldom done much to bring out the “emotional core” of the operas onto which they were expensively hitched. Mastrangelo contrasts all this nostalgically with the “simplicity” of the old impresario system that reigned in Verdi’s day. He feels that Japan has, so far, avoided most of the European mistakes.

He speaks very affectionately of the Japanese: “they have a lot of passion for opera; they want to make it their own.” At the centre of Japanese operatic life, he sees a hard core of wealthy opera lovers: people who will travel the world to see the operas they want to see, and who will invest time and money in operatic production in Japan. It was such people, he explains, whom he encountered in Italy, and who persuaded him to come to Japan in the first place. They were aware of the danger of insular standards, and wanted Mastrangelo to propagate “traditional Italian” values. To do this, he has set up what he has christened the Mirai Project, or “Future Project,” to educate singers, musicians and directors in Italian ways of doing things. The goal, he says, is to reach La Scala levels, and La Scala conveniently provides a symbol of steady progression: it is a matter of gradually ascending steps, or stairs, until Japanese performers are at the top. He sees no point in aiming at anything less.

Mastrangelo deplores the fact that German ideas about classical European music have had such a profound influence in Japan, so that Bach is considered the quintessential European genius in music in the same way Shakespeare is in literature. He feels this has led to an excessive emphasis on correctness as opposed to expressiveness; often what he calls “the heart” of the music is not brought out, or felt. He considers “creating emotion” to be central to the Italian musical ethos, and this lies at the heart of the Mirai Project. Music schools, he says, should teach literary appreciation as a matter of course. Singers need to understand exactly what they are singing, and be able to bring out not just the beauty of the words, but their particular dramatic inflection.

Getting back to Europe, I put it to Mastrangelo that though European productions may often rely too much on shock tactics, they do at least stir debate; while all the Japanese productions I have seen have presented operas as completely inoffensive classics to be savoured, above all, for their musical beauty. Should opera shock, at least a little bit? He pauses before replying, and when he talks about how opera has been shocking people for 400 years, I feel he is still trying to arrange a diplomatic answer. Finally he gets to the point: any opera should leave an audience thinking; it should seem relevant and contemporary to some extent. Behind this I catch the subtext that though Japanese directors are right to avoid shock tactics, they could attempt a bit more contemporary relevance.

Much of the opera produced in Japan relies on the enthusiastic contributions of amateur and semi-professional choruses: indeed it is the desire of such groups to be involved in opera that often sets the ball rolling, as in the “community opera” system of which Chofu is part. One of the problems with this, I suggest to Mastrangelo, is that the model massively favours operas with a big but not too tricky choral role, and in practice this usually means nineteenth-century works. He agrees with my diagnosis of the situation, but I feel he doesn’t see it as a problem as much as I do. It is a “business problem,” he maintains, slightly deflecting the question: “the Japanese don’t like taking risks.” He suggests that European opera houses are often “only half full” when modern works are staged; nevertheless, Japanese audiences could slowly learn to appreciate such works. As I understand him, he believes in a core repertoire of mostly nineteenth-century works, with Verdi at the centre, which will slowly expand as the audience for opera is built up. The closest he has come to straying outside the standard repertoire in Japan is Cimarosa’s Matrimonio segreto. He is at heart a popularist, and I detect no appetite for imposing modern works on audiences just because they have been pronounced historically significant by critics or championed by a small minority of music lovers.

I suggest that the Japanese and the British have a good deal in common when it comes to opera: they tend to think of it as an essentially foreign entity, best listened to in a foreign language. Mastrangelo strongly agrees, avoiding any comment on British opera apart from assuring me that he loves Britten, “a great composer.” “What of Japanese opera?” I go on, “should Japanese opera companies schedule more works by Japanese composers?” His answer is a surprisingly emphatic “no.” He explains that a lot of cultural familiarity with opera is needed before great operas are produced; the implication is that to Japanese composers - who, with one notable exception, only turned their efforts to opera after World War II - opera is still too foreign a genre for them to produce operas of a Verdian, international standard. They may have the technical resources, but they don’t yet have the feeling. This may be true, but I hear a lot of personal and national feeling in his answer: Mastrangelo wants a future in which Japanese audiences will go on deepening their understanding and appreciation of Italian opera in particular, and it is a future in which he sees a significant role for himself.

After the scheduled interview is over, we continue chatting about opera, and I put in a plug for Montemezzi’s L’Amore dei Tre Re as one of the most unjustly neglected operatic masterpieces. Mastrangelo warmly agrees: “Sì, sì! It is a beautiful, beautiful score! But …”


“We could not get financial support for it in Japan.”

David Chandler