The Tale of Genji, Japan’s classic 11th-century romantic saga, spans decades and locales. But it’s very much a story of the intimacies of the heart. So it feels right that Murasaki’s Moon, a new opera exploring what some consider the world’s first novel, should be performed in the Astor Court, the Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s intimate skylit garden gallery.
This one-act, three-character chamber opera from On Site Opera takes a metatheatrical view of what is already, in a way, a metafictional work. (The Tale of Genji‘s author, Murasaki Shikibu, is known by the name of one of her prominent characters.) The opera is an artwork about the process of art. It undertakes to dramatize the ancient book’s genesis and composition. But with trenchant, emotionally penetrating music and glorious singing, it has as much to say about our modern world as about Japan’s Heian period a thousand years ago.
The real Lady Murasaki was of low rank. She despised the high-born ladies’ preoccupation with beauty and surface charm – with pleasing their men. In the opera she is a lonely artistic soul with no confidante but the moon overhead. So, without meaning to, she conjures the smooth, impossibly handsome lothario, Prince Genji, as a kind of muse, a midwife to her art.
The relationship between author and character grows increasingly troubled. The priapic Genji escapes his creator’s control. Murasaki’s resolve to write the truth wavers under social pressure. The opera does neither. Composer Michi Wiancko’s music, scored for string quartet, koto, Japanese flutes, and percussion, fuses Western modernism with traditional Japanese sounds. It creates a deeply appealing and dramatically consistent musical world.
Instead of supertitles, audience members could follow Deborah Breevort’s wise English libretto in English or Japanese via an app. The titles weren’t always needed, and definitely not at the start, when Murasaki sang her “I Want” song while the court is waiting tensely for the Empress to give birth to a Crown Prince. The velvety sheen of Kristen Choi‘s mezzo, cushioned on pointillistic gestures from the musicians, established a firm artistic footing for the performance.
When a Buddhist Priest (John Noh) announces the birth of the baby, a solemn ritual ensues, with thunderous rhythmic drumming. Noh displayed a pure, steely tone mellowed by a tight vibrato.
The Priest is for the moment in total control. Murasaki despairs of her low rank and the 50 arduous days she must spend in the company of the superficial ladies of the court.
It’s then that Genji appears, summoned by her longing – longing for a friend, she says, but we understand that her need for meaning is at least as strong. With a burnished golden tenor and a glint in his eye, Martin Bakari gave us Genji-as-savior: “Writing me’s the best thing you could do. No more talking to the moon.”
Murasaki resolves to write a story “about what being a perfect woman does to me and you.” Her “you” is Genji, but it’s also all of us. The opera speaks to our contemporary struggles with body image as well as with women’s troubled place in a patriarchy.
Over a snaky cello passage, Genji reads and approves the tales Murasaki has begun to spin. Murasaki embodies in turn three women she’s created for Genji to romance – and, in one pointed case, to attempt to assault. Genji believes he can possess these women, stash them away, then return to have his way with them on a whim. But he has a surprise in store, announced by a piercing scream of frustration and sadness from one of them.
The Priest returns to plead with Murasaki to rework her story into mere light entertainment. For the women are refusing to sing the sutras. By writing the truth “you’ve written an evil tale…gone too far.”
In a beautifully dramatic duet Murasaki and Genji agree to seek solace in the quiet of the night. Bakari showed off his full range in a brief a capella mea culpa aria: “This is not the man I wish to be.” Author and character merge: “I am the deepest part of you,” he declares. In the end Murasaki realizes that writing her book of truth is her destiny, as it was for the real Murasaki – The Tale of Genji sealed her immortality.
This was, by opera standards, a tiny production. That makes especially impressive Eric Einhorn’s smooth and fully imagined staging and the flawless synchrony of the singers and the musicians conducted by Geoffrey McDonald. The world premiere ran May 17-19 in conjunction with the Metropolitan Museum’s Tale of Genji exhibit. I hope a larger production is in the cards (or the scrolls). But not too large. This one-hour work probably needs a degree of intimacy for full effect. Visit On Site Opera’s website for announcements about future productions.