Performing Kiyotsune in 2002 on the Kita Noh Stage, Tokyo
Richard Emmert is a professor of Asian performance at Musashino University in Tokyo. He has studied, taught and performed classical noh drama in Japan since 1973 and is a certified Kita school noh instructor.
The founder and artistic director of Theatre Nohgaku, a company dedicated to performing noh in English, he has led performance tours of the company in the United States, Europe and Asia and specific noh performance projects in Australia, Canada, China, Colombia, France, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Switzerland, Singapore, the UK and the US.
Commitment to the noh training
As an example of his creative leadership, Professor Emmert and others in Theatre Nohgaku are continuously exploring training support for the longer-term sustainable development of noh internationally. They have established NohTraining Projects since 1991 in Tokyo and subsequently in the USA and the UK. Specifically, Richard directs an on-going Noh Training Project in Tokyo, has for twenty years lead a summer Noh Training Project Bloomsburg in Pennsylvania (US), and has led an intensive summer Noh Training Project UK sponsored by Royal Holloway, University of London as co-founder and Artistic Director since 2011. Richard continues to be invited as a guest faculty for noh training internationally, having undertaken 30 such commitments since 1984 either working with Japanese professional noh actors, or leading training events in other countries.
He has co-authored with Monica Bethe a series of Noh Performance Guides, and has completed a 6-volume series of noh summaries consisting of the entire repertory of Japanese Classical Noh, both published by the National Noh Theatre.
Major noh performances
Richard has been involved in 22 major performances of noh in Japan in a variety roles (including shite, chorus, koken and hayashi, as well as directing and composing). Similarly, he has been engaged in 28 major performances of noh abroad, including eleven English language noh plays for which he has composed, directed and performed in. These include British poet-playwright Jannette Cheong’s Pagoda performed in 2009 at the South Bank Centre, London as well as in Oxford, Dublin and Paris, and again in 2011 at the National Noh Theatre in Tokyo, as well as in Kyoto, Beijing and Hong Kong. As well as co-poducing with Jannette Cheong and Unanico a special tribute for his life-long friend and teacher, Professional noh actor, Akira Matsui, in 2017 at LSO St Luke's in London.
List of completed noh works
- Rió Sumida (Music arrangement for the classical noh play Sumidagawa into Spanish) (Mexico 2018)
- Emily (Composer of music in Noh style for the original English noh play) (Librettist, Ashley Thorpe) (London 2018) (Introduction: RHUL), (Review by Helen Parker, University of Edinburgh)
- Opposites-InVerse (Composer of music in Noh style for the original collaborative noh/opera/ballet performance) (Librettist, Jannette Cheong) London 2017 (Project Report, including reviews and comments)
- Pagoda (Composer of music in Noh style for the original English noh play) (Librettist, Jannette Cheong) (UK, Ireland, France 2009) (Tokyo, Kyoto, Beijing, Hong Kong 2011) (2009 Tour Report), (2011 Tour Report, both of which include reviews and comments)
- Oppenheimer (Composer of music in Noh style for the original English noh play) (Librettist, Allan Marett) (Australia 2015)
- Blue Moon over Memphis (Composer of music in Noh style for the original English noh play) (Librettist, Deborah Brevoort) (USA 2013)
- Sumida River (Music & performance arrangement/translation of the classical noh play) ( Hawaii 2008, San Antonio 2015)
- The Gull (Composer of music in Noh style for the original English noh play) (Librettist, Daphne Marlatt) (Canada 2006)
- Pine Barrens (Composer of music in Noh style for the original English noh play) (Librettist, Greg Giovanni) (2006 USA)
- Crazy Horse (Composer of music in Noh style for the original English noh play) (Librettist, Erik Ehn) USA 2001, remounted as Moon of the Scarlet Plums in Tokyo & San Francisco, 2005)
- Eliza (composer) (Librettist, Allan Marett) (Australia 1989, Japan 1990)
- Saint Francis (Rearrangement and recomposition of music in noh style) (Libretto, Arthur Little) (USA 1987)
- Drifting Fires (Composer of music in Noh style for the original English noh play) (Librettist, Janine Beichman) (Japan 1985, 1986)
- At the Hawk's Well (Composer of music in noh style) (Text, WB Yeats) (Kyoto, Osaka 1985, Kyoto 1990, USA 2002)
Training school children in the UK as part of the Pagoda project (2009).
Photography by Clive Barda
Tradition and change in noh
by Richard Emmert
Many people seem to believe that noh is a monolithic tradition that hasn’t changed in its 650-year history. Noh, indeed, has a long history and its strict traditions have been passed down largely through families, from father to son, generation after generation. Many noh families can still trace their ancestors back to the 14th and 15th centuries and further.
However, researchers have evidence that many aspects of noh have undergone transformations since its development largely into its present structure during the 14th and 15th centuries. These include the length/time of performances (performances of 600 years ago are thought to have been about two-thirds the time they take today), the shape of the stage, the development in quality of the costumes, the change in the structure of the noh flute, and the development of the dynamic singing style (all probably from 450-500 years ago), the use of a theatre building to house the stage (140 years ago), and the appearance of professional female performers (the last 100 years or so) to name several prominent transformations.
Smaller changes also constantly take place. No two performers are alike even from the same family. Noh has considerable freedom of expression while performing within implied parameters. That freedom of interpretation clearly results, not in a static tradition, but in a living and breathing one.
In terms of plays, the present classical repertory numbers around 250. Yet over the last 650 years there have been over 3000 noh plays written and one presumes many of these have been performed. That said, the number of new (shinsaku) plays dropped considerably during the Meiji period (1868~1912) and through to the 1980s. With only a few exceptions, new plays, if created at all, tended to be made by only the most prominent noh performers. Similarly, there were revivals (fukkyoku) of earlier plays made during this time, but very few.
A catalyst for change in this regard was the opening of the National Noh Theatre (NNT) in 1983. Several years later, the NNT began creating revivals by small teams of scholars and actors. Often these pieces had merely a text or even just parts of texts from hundreds of years ago, so any revival required developing ideas for music, costume and staging—in essence they required the skills to create anew rather than the skills needed to maintain tradition.
In this way, more performers began to understand the importance of creation while maintaining tradition. Particularly, in the 1990s, many noh performers began creating and performing new pieces, and those numbers have continued to grow over the last two decades. That said, performance of traditional pieces still make up probably 99 percent of performances that take place in the noh world during the course of a year.
In addition, a few actors—Akira Matsui being one who stands out prominently—have collaborated with non-noh performers. Mr. Matsui, for example, has collaborated with a variety of Western and Asian theatre, dance and music practitioners, both classical and modern. It seems that for the most part, these collaborations take place with the noh practitioners maintaining a strict adherence to noh traditional techniques while performing with non-noh performers. Other prominent performers from the noh world who have participated in such collaborations from the 1950s include brothers Hisao and Hideo Kanze, several generations of the Shigeyama kyogen group, and Mansaku Nomura, and his son Mansai Nomura from the 1990s, then Reijiro Tsumura from the 2000s, and musicians Shonosuke Okura from the1980s and Yukihiro Isso from the 1990s. There certainly are others.
While it is difficult to refer to such collaborations as noh, clearly performers are using their noh skills in new and profound ways. Mr. Matsui has said that what he does in such collaborations is noh, although his non-noh collaborators are doing something else. However one might refer to these collaborations, the important point is that the noh performers in these collaborations are not attempting to be ballet dancers or Western actors or jazz musicians. Instead, they are using their traditional training in new performative circumstances.
Another strain of change in the noh world is the advent of English noh. While there are varying definitions of what makes an English noh, it is clear that beginning with W.B. Yeats’ At the Hawk’s Well which he termed a noh play when it was first performed in 1916, there has been interest internationally in noh performance and various attempts to use noh or noh-like elements in English and other non- Japanese plays. There is also interest in this development within Japan as can be seen in the entry entitled “English Noh” in the third edition of the Japanese-language Noh-Kyogen Encylopedia (Noh-Kyogen Jiten), as well as several paragraphs within the even more recent Nohgaku Encyclopedia (Nohgaku Daijiten).
Today’s performance of Opposites/InVerse is in that vein of English noh. Jannette Cheong as author, and myself as composer, are collaborating for a second time after working on the strictly English noh play Pagoda performed by Theatre Nohgaku and the Oshima Noh Theatre and toured in London, Dublin, Oxford and Paris in 2009 and in Tokyo, Kyoto, Beijing and Hong Kong in 2011. This time, considering the ballet dancer and the opera singers, Opposites/InVerse would be more properly labeled a noh-influenced dance-drama rather than a strict noh play. It was Jannette’s wish to use opera singers and a contemporary dancer with the idea of creating a true collaboration between Western and noh elements. Of course, it could easily be a more strictly English noh in a future iteration. Hopefully its beauty will be apparent in either.