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June 13, 2011

Metropolitan Opera Brings More Than Just Music to Japan

New York’s Metropolitan Opera may not have its two biggest stars on tour in Japan, but that has not dampened the troupe’s reception in the nuclear-stricken country.

Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, says the cast and crew have stirred relief and celebration in Nagoya and Tokyo where they are performing this month.

“The trip is unlike any other the Metropolitan Opera has taken here because we are the first major performing arts company to come to Japan since the earthquake,”Gelb told VOA from Tokyo, referring to the March 11 quake that triggered a tsunami and caused a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant.


Audio from Verdi’s “Don Carlo.” Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus. James Levine, conductor. Sony © 1994

Other prominent acts, including the Vienna Boys Choir, the Lyon Orchestra and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, cancelled their scheduled tours of Japan following the nuclear accident.

Fears of radiation also kept the Met’s acclaimed soprano Anna Netrebko and tenor Joseph Calleja at home.

The opera company brought in radiation expert David Brenner of New York’s Columbia University to discuss the possible health effects of visiting Japan so soon after the nuclear meltdown.

Brenner said there were some spikes in radiation doses in the capital shortly after the Fukushima accident, but the threat has eased. “The radiation doses in Tokyo right now are the same as they were last year,” Brennar said. “They basically returned to the same dose levels that were the case before the radiation accident.”

Despite the assurances, Gelb says it was hard to allay all concerns because of the varied media coverage on the nuclear crisis.

“They don’t always put things in context when one reads about the meltdown. They don’t also report the fact that Tokyo is okay,” he said. “So it’s understandable that those people who are prone to being anxious and nervous about things they don’t know about. And radiation’s certainly a subject that nobody knows too much about, so there was a lot of fear and anxiety.”

The Met spent four years planning the Japan tour. And after assessing the risks, Gelb scrambled to make it happen. Soprano Marina Poplavskaya and tenors Marcelo Alvarez, Rolando Villazon and Alexey Dolgov replaced the missing stars.

From left: Yonghoon Lee, Marina Poplavskaya, General Manager Peter Gelb, Principal Guest Conductor Fabio Luisi, Mariusz Kwiecien, Piotr Beczala, Barbara Frittoli, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Ekaterina Gubanova, and René Pape. (photo: Koichi Miura/Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan Opera’s tour has brought much needed business to Japan’s tourism industry and the theater world, which has been hard hit since the crisis.

“The crews that work backstage, which typically work together with the crews of visiting theatrical groups have basically been unemployed,” said Gelb. “So they were particularly delighted to see us and have a chance to get back to work.”

When the group arrived in Nagoya, Gelb said the entire hotel staff, from the chambermaids to the chefs, lined up along the street to wave to the company. He said the feelings of goodwill are mutual. “Almost everybody who’s supposed to be on this tour is on the tour,” he said. “And I think that everyone who’s here is absolutely thrilled, from the stagehands to members of the orchestra to the many super opera stars who have made the trip.”

Gelb said the company is keeping things in perspective.

“The inconvenience to the Met is nothing compared to the tragedy that the people of Japan have faced,” he said. “I think all the members of our company realize that if they can provide some small degree of solace to the citizens of Japan who can forget their worries for a couple of hours while they’re sitting in a performance of the Met, we’re delighted to do so.”

The Metropolitan Opera’s seventh tour of Japan ends on June 19.