Conductor Seiji Ozawa is trying to find out with a novel program in
his homeland aimed at drawing young Japanese musicians out of their
shells. He is trying to instill emotion in their performance of
Western classical music by inspiration, or at least osmosis, using the
gusto of opera.
Ozawa, the music director of the Boston Symphony, has set up an
institute to teach young musicians to play Mozart's great operas. He
hopes the undercurrents intended by the 18th century composer--be they
romantic, melancholic or tragic--will stir the students enough to
overcome their cultural reserve and play with more zeal.
``I'm sure I was a timid Japanese student, but I worked in Europe
and America,'' said Ozawa, who in 2002 will become music director of
the Vienna State Opera. ``The [final] thing I want to do in my life is
to teach this.''
It is this reserve that can hinder otherwise highly proficient
students and musicians in Japan, Ozawa believes. It's difficult to put
his finger on exactly what's missing--it's not, for example, a matter
of a violinist hitting a string too high on the bow, or beginning a
second later than he's supposed to. It's about communicating, he says,
the ability to move an audience that distinguishes a good from a
brilliant performance. He recalled once hearing Czech musicians who
weren't perfect technically but nevertheless produced a powerful,
Perhaps because of Japan's prevailing Confucian philosophy, he
mused, with its reverence for hierarchy and respect for elders, the
culture tends to encourage reserve. Japanese don't ``break their own
wall to go out to express themselves.''
Ozawa's three-year program, which has just gotten off the ground,
is aimed strictly at music students. However, it strikes a much
broader chord in Japanese society, where individuality and creativity
are often stifled.
Japan excels in manufacturing and perfecting technologies, for
example, but often comes up short when it comes to nurturing inventors
and entrepreneurs. The country's education system is based on rote
memorization, making Japanese ``very good foot soldiers but not
imaginative leaders,'' said Tadashi Yamamoto, president of the
nonprofit Japan Center for International Exchange.
``You are taught not only to suppress your own thinking but to
suppress emotions as well,'' said Yamamoto, who directed a commission
appointed by Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi that recently called for
encouraging creativity, individuality and a ``pioneer spirit'' as
Japan's top goals in the 21st century.
Yamamoto applauds Ozawa's efforts as exactly the type of
inspirational programs the commission supports. For two months each
year, Ozawa and 10 others will teach about 40 skilled students to
perform operatic music. Ozawa is hoping that the inherent blend of
drama and music in opera will inspire the young musicians, some of
whom have never been to the opera.
Though performed in Japan for more than a century, opera is not as
ubiquitous here as in Europe or the U.S. Ozawa's program will perform
one opera each year, beginning with ``The Marriage of Figaro,'' then
``Cosi fan tutte'' and ``Don Giovanni.''
Ozawa is mostly going on gut instinct that it will work. Even he is
not sure if creativity or passion can be taught or learned, or is
really a product of the heart. Or experience. Or nature. ``This is
really the question,'' he said. Any time he teaches someone chamber
music, he tries to find out who the musician is and ``find out what I
want to get out [of him].''
Was the stirring performance by the Czechs stimulated by a history
of political upheaval and resistance that might have made performers
more passionate than those in Japan, where most people these days live
comfortable lives in a society with little crime or disorder?
Ozawa is not sure.
``If you're hungry, then you really want to do something,'' he
said. ``If you're happy and you go home to warm food and a bed waiting
. . . well. . . .'' He stretches out his hands without completing the
Ozawa is anything but reserved: He wears his shaggy salt-and-pepper
hair almost shoulder length. He is known for wearing tunics and casual
clothes when conducting the Boston Symphony, which he joined 27
seasons ago. He's dynamic and emotional on stage, and charming and
funny when talking with a group in fluent, though often broken,
But he also has had far from a typical Japanese upbringing,
starting with his birth in Manchuria, China, in 1935 while his
nation's troops occupied the region. His father also was a rebel:
Working for a Japanese railroad company as a dentist, he became
increasingly sympathetic to Chinese resistance against Japan's
aggression. Following an attempt on his life, the father took his
family back to Japan. Ozawa was 6.
``I had a problem to become a real Japanese right away,'' Ozawa
He began playing the piano, but quit after breaking two fingers in
rugby and switched to conducting. He studied at Tokyo's Toho School of
Music. Awards in international competitions brought him to the
attention of Leonard Bernstein, who in 1961 appointed Ozawa assistant
conductor of the New York Philharmonic.
But Ozawa was humiliated when he returned to Tokyo in the early
1960s and was branded ``too Western.'' When he arrived to conduct
Japan's NHK Orchestra in a special performance, the orchestra pit was
empty: The musicians were boycotting him.
``I thought maybe I would not come back'' to Japan, he said. But he
was supported by many other artists, such as fashion designer Hanae
Mori, and he relented. He now spends several months a year in Tokyo.
Among his other achievements in Japan was starting the
international Saito Kinen music festival in memory of Hideo Saito, his
teacher at the Toho school--and a key figure in bringing Western music
and technique to Japan. Ozawa also runs a clinic there, teaching
Most of the musicians selected for the opera program are in their
20s. Is that too late in life to learn passion? Ozawa doesn't think
``When you talk about emotion and life experience, you can't teach
that to an 11-year-old. How do you explain to a 12-year-old what
pathetic is, or the depth of Mahler's Ninth Symphony ending when he
says goodbye to the world?''
Ozawa only started performing opera at age 30, when he went to
Austria for the first time. ``I went crazy,'' he said.
The experience changed everything, including the way he conducted.
``If you don't play opera, you may never know the beauty of Puccini,
Verdi or Wagner, or really understand Mozart.''
One of the young musicians he taught at the Saito Kinen festival,
19-year-old violinist Kota Nagahara, will be among the 40 symphony
members already chosen for the opera program, which Ozawa dubbed
Ongaku-Juku, meaning music cram school or tutorial.
``Ozawa is full of energy about everything,'' said Nagahara, who
began playing at age 5 to accompany his mother on piano. The young
musician hasn't had the money or time to see opera in Japan, where it
is quite expensive. But he seems to have the enthusiasm Ozawa is
talking about, if a phone interview is any indication. Asked to
compare the playing styles of Japanese with foreigners, he said:
``Japanese musicians are trying to kill their own feelings, so they
cannot express themselves when they are playing the music. They've got
But when Nagahara is playing the violin, ``it's just so fun, I'm
just doing what I like. So I'm expressing myself as much as foreigners
do, and I don't feel shy or embarrassed about it.''