A DYSTOPIAN NIGHT AT THE OPERA
Iconoclastic Japanese author Masahiko Shimada has written a futuristic opera, Super Angels, full of imagination and caution
Please don’t call Alter 3 a robot, or you’re likely to hurt its artificial intelligence feelings. It’s not every day that a vocaloid lands a singing part in the operatic extravaganza Super Angels to be performed this summer at the New National Theatre in Tokyo.
With the libretto written by novelist and superstar celebrity Masahiko Shimada, the opera is a cutting-edge spectacle that combines the talents of the New National Theatre Chorus, an orchestra, ballet, and state of the art video and stage design. If you want to see the future — that is, art and technology merging as symbiotic lovers — it’s in Japan. After all, this is where manga and anime were birthed.
Shimada is a celebrated novelist and social commentator and a Gestalt kind of guy. He’s also a screenwriter, actor, newspaper columnist, makes TV and radio appearances, and his latest novel serialized in Dickensian manner leaves his readers hungrily awaiting the next day’s newspaper installment. Catapulted into literary fame with A Tender Divertimento for Leftists, he continues to delve into politics, the counterculture, and all that is human nature. Take for instance, his libretto for the internationally acclaimed opera Junior Butterfly which tells the tale of Madame Butterfly’s son.
Evidenced by his creative spirit, Shimada’s mind is crystal clear and his heart is pure. He remains true to his grand amour: the opera.
Describe the experience of writing the libretto for Super Angels and writing for a vocaloid?
Super Angels is the third opera libretto I wrote and it’s based on my original story — my science fiction novel Catastrophe Mania. The opera is an attempt to co-star an actual humanoid robot with an opera singer, ballet dancer, children’s chorus, and people with disabilities. The novel was published four years ago and is about the after effects of a pandemic caused by an artificial virus; the world is divided into humans under the control of AI and humans who become wild. The AI becomes a human educator, creates a chaos generating machine through the interaction of the unconsciousness of human beings, and opens the door to a parallel world.
How did you first get interested in opera?
When I was a boy, I became familiar with opera exclusively on vinyl and radio, but as the Japanese yen strengthened, I had more opportunities to come into contact with the actual stage of European touring productions in the Japanese theater. Also, when I stayed in New York City, I enthusiastically attended the Metropolitan Opera.
Handel’s Julius Caesar is the best among Baroque operas when Castrati were active, Rossini’s Tancredi and Semiramide aim for a revival of the 17th century opera golden age, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Verdi’s Otello, Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth in Muzensk County, and John Adams’ Dr. Atomic for modern opera.
I am attracted to heroes who are deeply worried and characters who expose their lust.
Is it possible to be a successful writer and cultural figure and still be part of the counterculture?
Yukio Mishima played these three roles as a Japanese writer. After the historical role of modern literature is over, literary presence is low and anti-intellectualism is rampant. Before being a novelist, I want to be a citizen, a person of resistance, a free man, and a hobbyist.
How would you describe Japan’s counterculture today?
Counterculture and subculture are very similar in Japan. The American counterculture of the late sixties landed in Japan in a rather poor form, bringing new trends to student movements, publishing culture, music, theater and film. The counterculture has influenced the transformation of Yankee Go Home mentality into I Love America. Japanese-style counterculture eventually became established as a subculture in the fields of manga, anime, and fashion, and became popular.
Subculture is a broad and ambiguous realm that is neither high-class nor popular culture, but can happen at the same time. Subculture is the result of interaction, struggle, and negotiation with the dominant culture and is a form of resistance. Subculture includes ritual acts such as “resistance to social and political systems” and “resistance to daily life such as workplaces and schools”.
However, Japanese obedience betrays that spirit.
In a Granta essay you mention you’d like to be buried in Venice. Is it still the city you return to most?
I couldn’t be born and raised in Venice and New York, but I can die there.
Best vacation spot?
I visit Okinawa, Taiwan and South Korea almost regularly. Naha is the cheapest city in Japan to drink. Taiwan has countless attractive food stalls. There is Maccoli Town in Jeonju, South Korea that has 36 kinds of wonderful dishes that are automatically served.
What’s always in your suitcase?
Frying pan, lighter, Mac Air, plastic bag, etc.
Your favorite bar and restaurant in Tokyo?
Saitamaya Yakiton for grilled meat, Izakaya Hamaya, and Shanghai Garden.
Something we wouldn’t know about you?
My prophecy strikes well.