Higurashi doujin opera
The Nerima culture center was hosting a pretty unusual event today: a performance of the Secondary-work Opera “Higurashi no naku koro ni”, a two-act operatic adaptation of 07th Expansion's sound novel. It was quite an interesting experience, and I'd like to jot down some quick thoughts about it, bullet-point-style.
Audience. I'm not sure what kind of expectations I had before coming, but I was a bit surprised to see old ladies among the attendees. I guess they were regulars of the venue on a Saturday afternoon cultural trip, but who knows. On the other hand, no really blatant otaku in sight, nor any of the show-offish intellectual hipster type that you often meet at contemporary music concerts. As far as I can tell, most of the audience consisted of people in their thirties or late twenties, particularly quiet female fans (well, not so quiet that you couldn't tell they were fans, but you get the idea). Clearly, though, it was mixed between Higurashi fans and people who just came for the music.
Story. The libretto was a relatively faithful adaptation of Onikakushi-hen, the first chapter in the series, complete with rather spectacular renditions of the famous lines (USO DA!) and a few pleasant fandom references (Tomitake FLASH!). I would have liked surtitles, however, as some of the lyrics, especially from the choir, were a bit difficult to grasp.
Set. Staid contemporary staging. The choir and orchestra were upstage on each side, while singers stayed mostly in the middle around a small box (almost the only stage prop, used as table, class desk, car seat, bed, etc.). Abstract scenery using colored lighting on a blank backdrop. Nothing too original, but it certainly had the “modern opera scenography” look to it (as opposed to, say, “pop musical”).
Costumes. On the other hand, all the singers were cosplaying their respective characters. Accurately too, although perhaps a bit strong on make-up. The Angel Mort uniforms were particularly well done, even if they felt a bit like gratuitous eye-candy.
Score. The music itself was interesting. Here's what the composer Combo498, who is also the leader of the Bernkastel Chamber Opera ensemble, has to say about the project:
As you know, Higurashi has many tastes—it is served “with all toppings,” so to speak: love comedy, friendship, slapstick, suspense, action... I wanted to turn all these “toppings” into music.
This is indeed how it felt: the score is a string of musical vignettes ranging over all sorts of styles: jazzy, Eastern pentatonic, pompous romantic, suspense soundtrack-like and occasionally dodecaphonic or atonal. The downside of such a variety of styles is that the whole piece lacked a bit of consistency, especially as it is relatively short (about one hour long), but it did convey Higurashi's quick mood-swings convincingly (and it keeps you alert even if you have the fan's stereotypically short attention span!).
I particularly liked Rika's dance (pentatonic melody and percussions with a rythmic twist), the scene when Keiichi refuses to let Rena in (nervous door slamming!) and the entire, slightly dissonant finale. Overall, a musical experience I won't regret.
Cast. The lead singers were professionals who offered fair vocal performances. However, it may have been a problem with the acoustics of the hall, but some of them had their voices easily covered by the orchestra. In particular, it seemed as if Uchida Masato (Keiichi) could have put a more powerful act.
I liked Takei Miki (Mion)'s voice best. She sang a couple of really nice arie. On the acting front, Yoshinba N-hiko (Tomitake) stole the show: his hentai cameraman antics were pretty awesome. Pretty good moe-moe acting by Rika and Satoko's voices as well.
Discussion. When you think about it, the basic concept of a “doujin opera” is pretty bold in and of itself, in the way it brings together popular and high culture. Contemporary music and visual novels don't really appeal to the same crowds, and addressing them both in a meaningful way is not an easy challenge. It is easy to fall into one of two traps: either fan pandering with little artistic merit, or insincere cherry-picking of pop elements for a high-culture audience.
It seems to me that this Higurashi Opera pulled it off very well. It is a genuinely interesting operatic piece with obvious respect for its source material. In other words, it is the exact opposite of everything Murakami Takashi does. Of course it is still far from a perfect blend, and you can't help to feel a little dissonance between high and low, but even that works somehow to make the show stand out. It also reminds you that a lot of people out there have high-culture and pop-culture hats they usually put on at different times, and interesting things happen when you try both at once. I'd really like to see more of this kind of experiment, and less Kirsten Dunst in Akiba.
P.S. Thanks to Zepy for pointing out this event well in advance.
Update (2010-03-18): I sent the Bernkastel Chamber Opera ensemble an e-mail asking whether they had any plans to release a video recording of this performance. Combo498 himself kindly replied that they indeed planned to release it on DVD—further details forthcoming. When the release date is known, I will be sure to let you know.