‘Murasaki’s Moon’ Right At Home In Met Art Museum

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Kristen Choi sang Lady Murasaki in the premiere of ‘Murasaki’s Moon,’ a chamber opera by Michi Wiancko and Deborah Brevoort. It was staged by On Site Opera at Astor Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)
By Susan Brodie

NEW YORK — Murasaki’s Moon is a new chamber opera by composer Michi Wiancko and librettist Deborah Brevoort about Lady Murasaki Shikibu, the creator of the early 11th-century Japanese literary work, The Tale of Genji. More than an author biography, the piece is a parable about creativity, authenticity, destiny, and pursuing one’s personal truth in spite of doubt, disapproval, and loneliness. The hour-long opera, presented by On Site Opera in conjunction with an exhibit of art inspired by the Tale, had its world premiere May 17 in the Astor Chinese Garden Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was an enchanting and accessible introduction to this ancient work and its author, with an uplifting feminist slant.

Lady Murasaki Shikibu in an illustration. (Wikimedia)

Murasaki Shikibu was a noblewoman at the 11th century imperial court. The Tale of Genji, considered the first psychological novel, relates the life of the fictional Hikaru Genji (Shining Genji), the son of an emperor and his concubine, and focuses on his wildly complicated love life. In the Tale, Genji first meets Murasaki when she was 10 years old; she later became his second wife.

A cross between the Thousand and One Nights and a bildungsroman, more complex than a Russian novel, and probably written in installments à la Charles Dickens, this document of courtly life is a Japanese cultural monument and is still studied and enjoyed for its literary style, its psychological acuity, and the insight it provides into the Heian era. The work’s convoluted conventions and archaic language have given rise to scores of translations, interpretation guides, and art inspired by the novel; a visit to the nearby gallery exhibit offered an apt pre-performance immersion in the world of Genji.

The opera’s story begins with the birth of an imperial son at court, where Murasaki is a lady-in-waiting. The priest orders her to stay with the empress and her attendants during the customary 50-day confinement to record events and to entertain the attendants with stories. With her tales, she hopes to win the friendship of these ladies, who shun her for her intellectual pursuits, even as she disdains their obsession with man-pleasing beauty.

Genji (Martin Bakari) helped Murasaki (Kristen Choi) recognize her destiny as an artist. (Stephanie Berger)

As Murasaki begins to write, she is visited by a charming and cocky young man, Genji, the embodiment of a character she had created, who urges her to write about his many, many romances. Blurring the line between fact and fantasy, together they reenact a series of seductions that she has written into the Tale until, stung by his casual fickleness toward his conquests, she exiles him from her story. Meanwhile, her plan to win friends at court has backfired: the ladies are horrified to recognize themselves in her stories, and the priest chastises her for sowing rebellion instead of obedience. Defeated by her loneliness, she agrees to bring Genji back for more romantic adventures, but Genji, repenting for his cruelty towards women, persuades her to fulfill her destiny by writing what is true.

John Noh played the Buddhist priest. (Steven Pisano)

On Site Opera, noted for site-specific productions of standard and new repertoire in unusual settings, chose a winning venue in the Astor Chinese Garden Court. The staging of  Eric Einhorn, general and artistic director of the company, configured the open courtyard to focus on Lady Murasaki’s writing desk in the center of a long space flanked by two rows of chairs for perhaps 100 spectators. At the pavilion end of the courtyard, musicians were arrayed on the steps into the building, which represented the palace. Actors moved freely in front of the audience and along the portico behind them, occasionally interacting with them. The crisp acoustics of the stone enclosure and the nearness of the singers made titles all but superfluous, but the libretto was available to read on mobile devices via On Site Opera’s app. The intimacy of the setting made a viewer feel like a member of court.

Brevoort’s English-language libretto (with fragments in Japanese) toggles between flowery imagery suggestive of the literary style of the Tale and more down-to-earth modern speech, limning the gulf between surface reality and the emotions underneath. Brevoort’s most appealing stroke is the magic realism of Murasaki’s relationship with Genji, an imaginary human manifestation of her only companion, the moon, to whom she customarily expresses her thoughts. Genji, an incorrigible heartbreaker, is central to the story, but he doesn’t actually exist — except as a metaphor for Murasaki’s unconscious and the creative process. The final scene, where Genji helps Murasaki recognize her destiny as an artist, felt like an overlong extract from a self-help manual, but I came away persuaded that the real Lady Murasaki must have exercised an extraordinary degree of independence for a medieval Japanese woman in order to create a Tale whose value has endured for a thousand years.

The score’s instrumentation included wooden flutes. (Steven Pisano).

Wiancko is an accomplished composer experienced in many genres, but she had never composed an opera when she received the commission from MetLiveArts for this work. Her score deftly marries music played on Japanese koto, wooden flutes, large drum, and other percussion with contemporary sounds from a string quartet (the fine Aizuri Quartet, in residence at the Met Museum). Typically, a scene began with a quiet introduction on Japanese instruments; as events unfolded, members of the string quartet entered to reinforce those sonorities, often introducing tension via dissonance and jagged rhythms. On Site music director Geoffrey McDonald, experienced with the challenges of coordinating widely dispersed musicians, assured smooth continuity among instrumentalists and singers.

Contrasting music for the three singers played a large part in delineating the different characters. The priest, sung with bright tone and imperious swagger by tenor John Noh, was largely limited to ceremonial proclamations and spoken commands. Genji (the irresistible tenor Martin Bakari), as a creature ruled by id, had more straightforward, informal music, with shorter, bouncier phrases, even when the moment required him to adopt, for example, the flowery language of seduction. As the most fully realized character, Murasaki, performed by the commanding and powerful-voiced Kristen Choi, sang and spoke in the widest variety of styles, from Buddhist chanting to operatic aria to Broadway-like ballad, as she both conformed to her different roles as lady-in-waiting and object of Genji’s affections and strived to break out of the mold of the perfect, passive Japanese woman and honor her truth.

Murasaki’s Moon was presented as part of Opera Fest 2019, which holds performances throughout New York City during May and June. For information on more events go here.

A live stream of the opera is available on demand on Facebook Live here.

The exhibit “The Tale of Genji: A Japanese Classic Illuminated,” with illustrations of and other art inspired by the work, remains on display at the Met Museum through June 16.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts, and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi!