Listen to the Silence: Yoshi Oida on Directing Britten's War Requiem at the Lyon Opera. Part 2
Last week, WWrite featured an interview with world-renowned tenor, Paul Groves,. Groves was the tenor and played the role of the British WWI soldier in one of the most original interpretations of Benjamin Britten's musical masterpiece, War Requiem at the Lyon Opera House in France. This week, we hear from actor/director/writer, Yoshi Oida, the Japanese director of Benjamin Britten's piece. Oida's discusses his connection with WWI through personal stories about Hiroshima, the experience of children in war, and his latest film with Martin Scorcese.
WWrite: Why did you decide to direct an opera inspired by Benjamin Britten’symphony for the Lyon Opera?
Yoshi Oida : Since childhood, people around me have gone to war and they have died in war. Even before the Second World War, I remember we were at war with China. So, when Japan lost the Second World War, I wasn’t sad. I was so happy because I could sleep every night instead of going to the underground shelters to protect myself from the bombing by American airplanes. I was so happy because my house was burned by the American attacks twice. My father had a bicycle factory and everything was broken. And when I escaped to go to the bomb shelters, I saw people die by my side. As a child, I was always with war and death.
Fortunately, after several years old there was no war in Japan. But I can never forget my childhood. So, when the Opera of Lyon asked me to War Requiem, I said yes. I also knew that, in addition to WWI, I had to make it a ceremony for my life. In fact, in WWI, the nuclear shuttle was the human being.
Every time, somewhere there’s war. There can never be complete peace in the world. Human nature goes to war all the time. So, when you say that human beings are at peace, unfortunately, human beings are the same as animals. We fight all the time. The problem is: how do we live with this aspect of human nature? Yes, if you look for peace, you may find it in a small corner in the world. But it isn’t useful to speak about peace because the human being can’t do peace all the time. This opera is about human nature and about this violence. How we live with this violence?
In the show, I’m not sending a simple message against the war or against human violence. I wanted to look at how each individual person lives inside this society of violence, which has existed since the beginning of human history. I don’t think religion can help us or that politics can help us, or even that philosophy can help us discover this. But somehow, we must find our own way, like Wilfred Owen wrote in some of his poems. He has doubts about religion, he has doubts about the war, he has doubts about the nation. So, I am not trying to tell people how to find a solution. I just want them to think in their own way.
WWrite: Benjamin Britten wrote this as a symphony, not an opera. What were some issues or disparities that you had to overcome to transform the piece?
Yoshi Oida: As for the musical point of view, yes, Benjamin Britten wrote this as a complete symphony. And to put this on stage in an opera with characters, I had doubts about the visual aspects because I was worried that I might disturb Britten’s music. He didn’t write this to be visual. But I did it and I was so careful about how not to destroy the music. And, another problem was that was written for the church. So, the public is supposed to come to the church and listen to this music, but I had to do it in a theater. And, the theater is not a Christian church. In some ways, the theater is like church, but there are no religions or a God. A theater is a theater. Theater is about human beings and we are not expecting God. And, I’m not Christian. So, for me, the religious part of the doubled text–the traditional Latin Requiem Mass and Owen’s poetry– is very far away. That was another disparity. I don’t know if I came up with the right solution or not. For me, it’s up to the public to decide.
WWrite: A short interview with you appears in the Lyon Opera program. In it, the interviewer asks you if there exist alternative ways to console oneself in the face of war violence. You responded that only other alternative was silence. You said, “we can’t stop war but we can learn to listen to the silence.” You also made a reference to a role you had in the 2016 Martin Scorsese film, Silence.Could you tell us a little bit more about what you mean by “listening to the silence” and War Requiem?
Yoshi Oida: Silence is not nothingness. When there’s war, you develop inside yourself huge doubts, huge thoughts, and a huge sadness. So, instead of a shout, it’s silence. How to live in this society of violence? We must search inside. I must search inside myself to find ways to live in this society of violence. I must find that small piece inside. Instead of 102 words, 100,000 philosophies or religions, it’s more important look deep, deep inside oneself. That’s where we find the fundamental truth of human beings.
Silence is also about acceptance. And acceptance is not passive. Silence is not a passive state but a very, very active one. How to accept this society? How to deal with this society of violence? Instead of looking at feelings and passion, we must move beyond those louder things to silence, to the deepest thoughts. But I am not saying this is an easy solution. Everybody wants to talk about solutions, but I don’t see very good answers. All I can do is find that small piece of silence inside of myself and listen to it so I can live in this society.
WWrite: Poetry is full of silences, and especially the poetry of Wilfred Owen, whose poetry in interweaved into the Latin Mass that is being played and sung throughout War Requiem. Did you find something in the poetry of Wilfred Owen that represented this kind of silence?
Yoshi Oida: Wilfred Owen was writing as a very young artist. And, unfortunately, he died a very young artist. If had continued to live like me until 85 years old, maybe he would have evolved in his thought. But he, at that moment, had the energy to live and he had the passion to live and write in the face of death and violence. I see that in his poetry. As an old man, I don’t think I have that in me anymore.
It’s good to consider the young when thinking about the war. That’s why I think Owen’s poems work very well. In some places, he has no hope and I find that very sad. Too sad. Instead of crying or imitating anger and mourning in War Requiem, I wanted to show life in the face of death. How to live. Acceptance through silence.
WWrite: One of the most interesting parts of the Opera includes the children’s chorus. Throughout the piece, the children are sitting on the side of the stage, as if watching a school performance. Sometimes they participate, but for most of the piece, they sit. However, in one part, the soldiers seem to stop the opera altogether to give a performance of Cain and Abel, a show just for the children. And, in this show, Cain and Abel are not people but puppets.
Yoshi Oida: Yes, this part is very light. Cain and Abel is a familiar, biblical story of death. I wanted the spectators to think about death and this original violence in another way. I wanted them to take a break from the war. So, they have puppets and they play with Abel’s decapitated head. Afterwards, I wanted them to go back to the war with a different perspective.
WWrite: In your War Requiem, as you did with the puppets, it seems you made a choice not to show dead bodies or at least the flesh of dead bodies. All the dead bodies are shrouded from head to toe or, at times, there is no body at all. Just the death shroud lying on the floor. Or an empty uniform on the floor with no body in it that gets covered in a shroud. Or the rag doll babies that come out of a coffin with no faces. Why did you decide not to show a more realistic interpretation of death? Blood and guts. In general, we tend to think that opera is a genre that lends itself to more elaborate representations of emotions and reactions to death.
Yoshi Oida: For this opera, I had to respect the music. Everything depends on the music and the poetry. I wanted to ignite the public’s imagination. The music, while it may seem to exist in the background, is the live reality of the show. But this background music isn’t the background music of a documentary film. Everything depends on what’s happening inside the spectator’s mind like listening to the music and thinking about the war, thinking about society and violence. I don’t want them to see directly or to hear directly. I want them to feel. The music follows the idea I want to show. I don’t want to present too many intellectual, concrete ideas or too much information because then music becomes less important. I want minimal information but maximum imagination while listening to music.
Everything must be a suggestion. I didn’t want to overfill the eyes of the spectator. So, I will show a hat, but not the head. What I want the spectator to do is come to the hat first, not the head.
War Requiem, Secrets of Creation: Rehearsal Scenes with Childrens Chorus and Actors
Date: October 5, 2017