A haunting Japanese story of heartbreak

Heather Pawsey and Yamai Tsunao in Komachi Visited.| Photo by Trevan Wong.

Master practitioners of the Japanese art form Noh combine their strengths with professional opera singers in Komachi Visited, an East meets West performance of a heart-rending Japanese story. The Source talked with librettist and director Colleen Lanki, scholar of Asian theatre and a Noh practitioner herself, about the challenges of creating a Noh piece for a Canadian audience.

“When I first saw Noh performed in Japan, I was astounded. When a Noh actor is moving three steps, he is doing it a hundred percent. It is so strong, it’s stunning,” says Lanki, who decided twenty years ago that she wanted to move to Japan and learn the ancient art.

Becoming a master

Lanki trained in Noh dance and chant under Kita Noh School master Ōmura Sadamu, whose daughter is the drummer of Komachi Visited. “To be an expert in Noh you have to start as a child, and so I am definitely not an expert. A Noh actor has to memorize more than hundred plays, with different costumes, music, and chants. They mostly reach a highly professional level when they are in their fifties,” Lanki says. Despite this, many amateur Noh groups enter their local stages as a hobby. “These people study and perform Noh because they like the history. And a funny fact is that the chanting is a very good breathing practice as well,” she says.

With stylized gestures and exhilarating chants, Noh plots typically hinge on two main characters who perform on a minimalist stage backed by a chorus, a flute player and a drummer. Noh theatre was never done with opera before, until award-winning Iranian-Canadian composer Farshid Samandari was inspired by the talents of the famous Noh player Yamai Tsunao. He asked Lanki to create a new libretto in which Tsunao would star next to a soprano, Vancouver’s own Heather Pawsey.

Just like Noh, chamber opera revolves around a singing chorus, a small musical ensemble, and a few lead characters. “Both chamber opera and Noh theatre are performed by very devoted musicians, who train all their live to become a master in their own traditional disciplines,” says Lanki.

“I took pieces of poems and traditional Noh plays about Ono-no-Komachi, who is a really famous poet of 9th century Japan. She wrote passionate poetry, sometimes with herself in the main role. I chose to base the story on the heartbreaking Noh play about her in which she blatantly demands a lover to sleep for hundred days next to her house before he can be her lover. But on the last day, the lover dies and the two could never be together,” says Lanki.

Gender roles change

The Noh play starts when the ghost of the lover starts haunting the ghost of the woman. “Both of the lovers make each other miserable, a thing that sometimes also happens in normal life,” says Lanki, laughing. “He won’t let her go to heaven. He won’t let her rest, because she hurt him so badly.” In the chamber opera, each of the two lovers will gradually switch from Japanese to English and vice versa, which is symbolic of their gradual deepening of understanding for each other.

“The composer did a wonderful job of combining the two sounds. There are times that Noh takes the lead, and times when opera takes the lead,” says Lanki.

Although Noh traditionally was a male art form, in the last century women started to work as professional actors as well. “We have two professional female singers and a drummer, and it is great to see the gender divisions change over the years. All these singers are, however, from the Komparu school, because in other schools female professionals are not that accepted yet,” says Lanki.


Kayoi Komachi/Komachi Visited will be performed Oct. 26–28 in the Cultch Historic Theatre.