The first full-act Western opera production performed by Japanese in Japan was staged in 1903. The opera was "Orpheus" (Orfeo ed Euridice) composed by Gluck, performed at Tokyo Music School concert hall and opened to the public by invitation only. Tamaki Shibata (changed to Tamaki Miura after marriage) performed the role of Yurihime (Euridice), with Yama Yoshikawa as Orpheus (Orfeo), and Sen Miyawaki as Amour (Amore). This proved to be the pivotal opportunity allowing for the development of a wide range of operas and operatic activities within Japan that have carved out a history spanning more than 110 years to today. While there are aspects difficult to imagine today, we can trace an overview of the first half ending around the 1950s, in particular, through source recordings that have been left to us.
Tamaki Miura Collected Works "Miura Tamaki Joshi Daiensokai Kyokumoku Kaisetsu" (Commentary on the Great Concert Songs of Madame Tamaki Miura), 1922, frontispiece page.
Tamaki Miura (1884-1946) was the first Japanese opera singer active on the international stage. She left for Europe in 1914, and was a resounding success in the lead role of Puccini's Madame Butterfly in Europe and America. In 1935, she returned home to Japan permanently. Through the record, a great many Japanese were able to hear her sing "Un bel di, vedremo", the emblematic aria of Madame Butterfly, catapulting the name of the opera, Madame Butterfly, and Tamaki Miura to fame. The substance of the aria is the song of Cio-Cio San, who, left in Nagasaki, faithfully believes that her husband, Pinkerton, will return for her, and devotedly awaits him.
→Listen to "Un bel di, vedremo" [In-library-only audio material]
Munetoshi Fujiyama, "Nihon kageki haiyu shashin meikan" (A Photograph Directory of Japanese Opera Performers) Kabu zasshisha, 1920, p. 14.
Nobuko Hara (1893-1979) was one of the Japanese soprano singers who performed internationally following Tamaki Miura. After being active at the Imperial Theater Opera Company, The Royal Theatre, The Asakusa Opera, and other Japanese opera houses, she became the first Japanese opera singer to perform at Italy's Teatro alla Scala in Milano, beginning in 1928. She repatriated in 1934, and became active after the Second World War in translating, directing, and the putting on premiere performances of Italian operas in Japan with her Nobuko Hara Opera Research Group. In this source recording, Nobuko Hara sings the aria, "Si, mi chiamano Mimi" (Yes, they call me Mimi) from Puccini's La Boheme in the original Italian, and her glorious best in Italy has been vividly captured here.
→Listen to "Si, mi chiamano Mimi" [Audio source material publicly available on the Internet]
Not only were Western operas adopted in Japan, but a movement to compose Japanese operas with Japanese language librettos set to Western style music began with the very first introduction of opera. Beginning with Sueharu Kitamura's work "Roei no Yume" (Bivouac Dream) in 1905, a diverse number of avenues of operatic expression developed. Among those, was a group called "fairy tale operas". With the inauguration of the Takarazuka Girls' Opera in 1914, a number of girl's operas were performed with opera-like stories tied together with solo and choral performances backed by an orchestra. A child-friendly, concise musical was born.
→Listen to the fairy tale opera,"Le Spectre Sue de la Rose". [In-library-only audio material]
Tomita Mori,"Nihon kageki haiyu meikan" (Directory of Japanese Opera Performers), Katsudoukurabusha, 1921, p.29.
The "Asakusa Opera" is what made opera attract the attention of people far and wide and what created a social phenomenon that must be called Japan's first opera boom. Though its golden age did not last more than ten years from 1916, the subjects there had such an impact that they are the talk of the town even today. Rikizo Taya (1899-1988) was the most popular tenor in the Asakusa. You can hear his golden age of singing in the aria "M'appari tutt' amor" from the opera Martha composed by Flotow.
→Listen to "M'appari tutt' amor" [In-library-only audio material]
Suppe's opera Boccaccio also attained fame in Asakusa and became a staple of the repertoire. Here, Toshiko Sekiya (1904-1941) is singing the lyrics of "Hab' Ich Nur Deine Liebe" (Koi wa Yasashi) translated into Japanese (by Aiyu Kobayashi) Sekiya also was successful internationally as a soprano and sang the lead in "Onatsu Kyouran" ("Onatsu's Madness"), an opera that she composed herself.
→Listen to "Hab' Ich Nur Deine Liebe" [In-library-only audio material]
This is a famous piece from Aubert's Fra Diavolo. This, too, was one of the popular repertoires in the Asakusa opera. Yoshie Fujiwara (1898-1976) went to Europe in 1920 and to the United States afterwards, temporarily returning to Japan in 1923 where he suddenly became famous in the Asahi Shibun's newspaper's running story, "Our Tenor". The performance of Puccini's La Boheme in 1934, in which he played the lead, earned the status of being the first perfomance of the Fujiwara Opera. Other opera source recordings related to Yoshie Fujiwara include "La donna e mobile" from Rigoletto and "Libiamo ne' lieti calici" from La Traviata.
→Listen to "Voyez sur cette roche" [In-library-only audio material]
"Fujokai" (Women's World [Magazine]) 1933, vol.47, no.2
Yoshie Fujiwara as The Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto
"Fujokai" (Women's World [Magazine]) 1933, vol.47, and no.2
Mezzo-soprano singer Yoshiko Sato (1903-1982) triumphed as the lead in the Bizet's Carmen and also sang as Carmen in France while studying abroad (1928-1932). This recording of "La Habanera" during the very climax of the performance was released in 1927 before her travel to Europe and she is singing in the original French with a piano accompaniment. This recalls the days of her youth when she was celebrated as "Carmen Oyoshi" (“Oyoshi” being a term of endearment for Yoshiko).
→Listen to "La Habanera" [In-library-only audio material]
The Nikikai surpassed the Fujiwara Opera as Japan's leading opera company in 1952, its inaugural year. Shizuko Kawasaki (1919-1982), who is known as one of the vocalist founding members who played a central role, has left us a source recording as an alto with a graceful air. "Connais-tu le pays?" was a hit at the time and though well known by itself, is an aria from a performance of Thomas' opera, Mignon. Tamaki Miura, Yoshiko Sato, Fumiko Yotsuya (1906-1981), and Kimiko Saegusa (1921-2000) have also left source recordings of this aria.
→Listen to "Connais-tu le pays?" [In-library-only audio material]
The German conductor, Manfred Gurlitt (1890-1972), escaped to Japan from the Nazis in 1939. After the war, he established the Gurlitt Opera Company and played a leading role in Japan's opera world. In this source recording, he conducts Yoshie Fujiwara as Alfredo and Kiyoko Otani (1919-2012) as Violetta in the aria "Libiamo ne' lieti calici" from Verdi's La Traviata. The Fujiwara Opera Chorus and the Victor Orchestra perform.
→Listen to "Libiamo ne' lieti calici" [In-library-only audio material]
After the war, the work that played a driving role on the creative side of Japanese opera was Yūzuru, first performed in 1952. An opera that Ikuma Dan (1924-2001) composed after Junji Kinoshita's play of the same name, it has been performed more than 800 times at present. Though all of the songs have been recorded a number of times, the now deceased Mutsumu Shibata (1913-1988) as Yohyou and Kiyoko Otani as Tsu on this source recording capture the atmosphere of the opera's first performance.
→Listen to "Yūzuru" [In-library-only audio material]
（Reiko Sekine, Opera Research Center, Showa University of Music）