Stefano Mastrangelo — An Italian in Japan

A big
man, oozing Italian warmth, he has been conducting in Japan for fourteen years,
teaching in leading Japanese music schools, as well as finding time for master
classes back in the Conservatorio Santa Cecilia, Rome, where he was a student
in the past. He sees himself as a cultural ambassador, not just promoting
Italian opera in Japan, but opening Japanese performers and audiences to a
particularly Italian way of doing Italian opera.

He explains that he grew up “inside of the opera,” and has loved the
medium as long as he can remember. Both his parents were opera singers. His
father, the baritone Giulio Mastrangelo, travelled the world in the course of
his operatic engagements; Stefano was conceived in England and has the middle
name “Sydney” for his father was singing in Sydney, Australia, at the time
of his birth in 1955. Many of his parents’ friends were opera people. He
learned the French horn from an early age, and entered the Scala orchestra in
1977. He was drawn into conducting by Giuseppe Sinopoli, whose assistant he was
for fifteen years. He remembers Sinopoli as “a very, very difficult
person,” but also a huge inspiration; in his own conducting he considers
himself “strongly influenced” by the older conductor and “continuing
Sinopoli’s work in Japan.” Indeed he remembers Sinopoli saying that “the
future of opera lay in Asia, and especially Japan.” Mastrangelo understands
this to mean that not only was there a huge audience for European classical
music in Japan, but a great willingness to cherish and nurture performance

Mastrangelo does indeed see the future of opera in Japan as a lot more
promising than anything Europe has to offer. “Opera in Europe is finished,”
he exclaims warmly at one point, before dilating at length on the problems
facing the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome – problems that he feels are part of a
wider cultural crisis. He is unsparing in his diagnosis of where opera in
Europe has gone wrong. There has been far too much state subsidy, creating an
unreal production atmosphere in which the audience was not considered to matter
very much. The major European companies have bloated administrations, employing
dozens of staff who may have little or nothing to do with music. And far too
many productions have relied on striking, often shocking, visuals that have
seldom done much to bring out the “emotional core” of the operas onto which
they were expensively hitched. Mastrangelo contrasts all this nostalgically
with the “simplicity” of the old impresario system that reigned in
Verdi’s day. He feels that Japan has, so far, avoided most of the European

He speaks very affectionately of the Japanese: “they have a lot of passion
for opera; they want to make it their own.” At the centre of Japanese
operatic life, he sees a hard core of wealthy opera lovers: people who will
travel the world to see the operas they want to see, and who will invest time
and money in operatic production in Japan. It was such people, he explains,
whom he encountered in Italy, and who persuaded him to come to Japan in the
first place. They were aware of the danger of insular standards, and wanted
Mastrangelo to propagate “traditional Italian” values. To do this, he has
set up what he has christened the Mirai Project, or “Future Project,” to
educate singers, musicians and directors in Italian ways of doing things. The
goal, he says, is to reach La Scala levels, and La Scala conveniently provides
a symbol of steady progression: it is a matter of gradually ascending steps, or
stairs, until Japanese performers are at the top. He sees no point in aiming at
anything less.

Mastrangelo deplores the fact that German ideas about classical European
music have had such a profound influence in Japan, so that Bach is considered
the quintessential European genius in music in the same way Shakespeare is in
literature. He feels this has led to an excessive emphasis on correctness as
opposed to expressiveness; often what he calls “the heart” of the music is
not brought out, or felt. He considers “creating emotion” to be central to
the Italian musical ethos, and this lies at the heart of the Mirai Project.
Music schools, he says, should teach literary appreciation as a matter of
course. Singers need to understand exactly what they are singing, and be able
to bring out not just the beauty of the words, but their particular dramatic

Getting back to Europe, I put it to Mastrangelo that though European
productions may often rely too much on shock tactics, they do at least stir
debate; while all the Japanese productions I have seen have presented operas as
completely inoffensive classics to be savoured, above all, for their musical
beauty. Should opera shock, at least a little bit? He pauses before replying,
and when he talks about how opera has been shocking people for 400 years, I
feel he is still trying to arrange a diplomatic answer. Finally he gets to the
point: any opera should leave an audience thinking; it should seem relevant and
contemporary to some extent. Behind this I catch the subtext that though
Japanese directors are right to avoid shock tactics, they could attempt a bit
more contemporary relevance.

Much of the opera produced in Japan relies on the enthusiastic contributions
of amateur and semi-professional choruses: indeed it is the desire of such
groups to be involved in opera that often sets the ball rolling, as in the
“community opera” system of which Chofu is part. One of the problems with
this, I suggest to Mastrangelo, is that the model massively favours operas with
a big but not too tricky choral role, and in practice this usually means
nineteenth-century works. He agrees with my diagnosis of the situation, but I
feel he doesn’t see it as a problem as much as I do. It is a “business
problem,” he maintains, slightly deflecting the question: “the Japanese
don’t like taking risks.” He suggests that European opera houses are often
“only half full” when modern works are staged; nevertheless, Japanese
audiences could slowly learn to appreciate such works. As I understand him, he
believes in a core repertoire of mostly nineteenth-century works, with Verdi at
the centre, which will slowly expand as the audience for opera is built up. The
closest he has come to straying outside the standard repertoire in Japan is
Cimarosa’s Matrimonio segreto. He is at heart a popularist, and I
detect no appetite for imposing modern works on audiences just because they
have been pronounced historically significant by critics or championed by a
small minority of music lovers.

I suggest that the Japanese and the British have a good deal in common when
it comes to opera: they tend to think of it as an essentially foreign entity,
best listened to in a foreign language. Mastrangelo strongly agrees, avoiding
any comment on British opera apart from assuring me that he loves Britten, “a
great composer.” “What of Japanese opera?” I go on, “should Japanese
opera companies schedule more works by Japanese composers?” His answer is a
surprisingly emphatic “no.” He explains that a lot of cultural familiarity
with opera is needed before great operas are produced; the implication is that
to Japanese composers – who, with one notable exception, only turned their
efforts to opera after World War II – opera is still too foreign a genre for
them to produce operas of a Verdian, international standard. They may have the
technical resources, but they don’t yet have the feeling. This may be true,
but I hear a lot of personal and national feeling in his answer: Mastrangelo
wants a future in which Japanese audiences will go on deepening their
understanding and appreciation of Italian opera in particular, and it is a
future in which he sees a significant role for himself.

After the scheduled interview is over, we continue chatting about opera, and
I put in a plug for Montemezzi’s L’Amore dei Tre Re as one of the
most unjustly neglected operatic masterpieces. Mastrangelo warmly agrees:
“SÏ, sÏ! It is a beautiful, beautiful score! But …”


“We could not get financial support for it in Japan.”

David Chandler

image_description=Stefano Mastrangelo
product_title=Stefano Mastrangelo — An Italian in Japan
product_by=An interview by David Chandler
product_id=Above: Stefano Mastrangelo