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Pacific Overtures

FRED COHN traces the Met’s first Japanese tour from its bold inception to its triumphant conclusion.

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Bonynge and Sutherland sign autographs during intermission of La Bohème
JamesHeffernan/Metropolitan Opera
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Met star Lucine Amara
James Heffernan/Metropolitan Opera
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Marilyn Horne and Luciano Pavarotti at a Shinto shrine at Nikko National Park
Herbert Breslin
 

In the fall of 1973, Met general manager Schuyler Chapin received a phone call from impresario Kazuko Hillyer, offering an extraordinary proposition. Petite, stunningly pretty and iron-willed, the Osaka-born Hillyer was the much-younger wife of Raphael Hillyer, founding violist of the Juilliard String Quartet — and a woman who made things happen. She had trained as a concert pianist, but when she realized that she lacked the goods for a performing career, she channeled her considerable energy and force of persuasion into presenting performing-arts attractions. She had organized U.S. tours for the Bunraku National Puppet Theater of Japan and the Tokyo String Quartet, as well as a Japanese tour for the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. Now she hoped to pull off her most impressive coup — bringing the Metropolitan Opera Company to Japan. 

During a recent interview with Hillyer, I sat in her living room overlooking the Lincoln Center plaza; the Met dominates her view. Still a handsome and dynamic woman, she has long since left the music business and now practices alternative medicine. But when she talks about spearheading the Met’s first Japanese tour, it’s with considerable, and understandable, pride. “When I started as an impresario in 1967, I immediately thought about this,” she says. “Everybody said, ‘Hmm…. It’s impossible,’ but I don’t give up. If it’s a good project, it will happen. You have to consider it as a beautiful round crystal ball that you put on the shelf. You look at it every day. Some day, when the timing is right, it jumps down off the shelf and starts rolling. And I just go like that [she blows out a puff of air] behind it.” 

Hillyer’s was not the first attempt to get the Met to Japan. Five years earlier, when Rudolf Bing was general manager, plans had moved forward for a stint at Expo ’70 in Osaka as a joint venture between the company and NHK, the state broadcasting network. But these plans had foundered on financing: the Met couldn’t raise the cash for its part of the bargain. (Another stumbling block was a bizarre scuffle with the music publisher Casa Ricordi over one of the planned attractions, Turandot. Even though Puccini’s music was in the public domain under international copyright law, the libretto and Franco Alfano’s completion were not.) 

But Hillyer had found a full sponsor in the commercial Chubu-Nippon Broadcasting Company (CBC). An avid importer of Western cultural attractions, CBC would cover all expenses — roughly $2.5 million (about $11 million today) — for a three-week tour to Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, and the Met itself would not have to put up one red cent. “We were going through a stressful financial challenge in that period,” says Michael Bronson, then the Met’s technical and business administrator. “It had no endowment fund. This gave us three fully paid weeks, covering all payroll and salaries. It was a good economic package, with money guaranteed that we could draw upon. I think everyone felt it was a good thing.”

The tour was set for three weeks in May–June 1975. Since Western opera was an unfamiliar phenomenon in Japan then, Hillyer pushed to bring “big names” and “very popular operas.” The Met obliged with a glittering display of star power, including Joan Sutherland in La Traviata, with Robert Merrill and Cornell MacNeil sharing duties as the elder Germont; and Marilyn Horne and James McCracken in Carmen. A small misunderstanding arose between the opera company and the sponsor over Plácido Domingo: his name had figured in early negotiations, and the CBC even included him in its initial promotional brochure, but he had a scheduling conflict. Still, nobody had reason to cavil about the two tenors headlining La Bohème — Franco Corelli and Luciano Pavarotti. 

Bronson was chiefly responsible for negotiating details with the sponsor; he and Chuck Bonheur, the Met’s tour operations director, oversaw the elaborate arrangements for moving sets, costumes and roughly 350 people halfway around the world, then to four theaters in three cities. Since Carmen had not been part of the 1974–75 season, the whole production could be shipped in containers well in advance. But both Bohème and Traviata were part of the American tour that the Met then made every spring, and the Japan trip came right on the heels of the U.S. dates, leaving no time to get the sets to Japan, so the productions were rebuilt in Japan under the supervision of the Met’s resident scenic designer, David Reppa. 

The trip turned out to be a swan song for Chapin, a victim of the company’s financial woes. The Met’s board was in the process of replacing him as general manager in favor of a “troika” consisting of Anthony A. Bliss, executive director; James Levine, music director; and John Dexter, director of production. Board chairman William Rockefeller and his wife, Molly, were scheduled to travel with the company for the tour. William Rockefeller offered to withdraw, but the preternaturally gracious Chapin, not wanting to cast a shadow over an occasion which he envisioned as “a triumph,” insisted that the Rockefellers come as scheduled.

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Mrs. Charles (Wally) Riecker, baritone Cornell MacNeil, Met general manager Schuyler G. Chapin and 
bass Justino Díaz at the Tokyo airport
James Heffernan/Metropolitan Opera 
 

Aside from performers and ten members of the administration, the company brought along a skeleton crew of department heads and key staffers; they would supervise, through interpreters, a backstage crew of Japanese personnel. The morning after a Forza in Minneapolis, the entire company would board a chartered Japan Airlines 747 for Tokyo. “It felt like a major military operation,” recalls baritone Frederick Burchinal, who sang d’Obigny in Traviata

Chuck Bonheur arranged the seating on the plane with the delicacy of a host arranging seating at a mammoth dinner party. “There’s the love affair, and the people who aren’t speaking to each other,” he says. “You had to make sure that Chorus Lady M wasn’t seated next to Chorus Lady P.” First class was reserved for top administrators and principals. When makeup chief Jim Pinto found out he would be traveling coach, he walked out of the tour — and lost his job in the process. Victor Callegari, Pinto’s assistant, found out when he landed in Tokyo that he was now head of the department.

Company members received a booklet with their itinerary, instructions for handling customs, travel hints and helpful Japanese phrases. For many, it was not only their first trip to Japan; it marked their first time overseas. The flight had the earmarks of a flying bacchanal: Callegari says that because the bar was in the rear of the plane, “It was flying at a tilt.” 

Most of the star singers traveled with spouses and family. Richard Bonynge, Sutherland’s husband, was the Traviata conductor; Horne’s husband, Henry Lewis, conducted Carmen. The Lewises took their nine-year-old daughter, Angela, who ended up, along with Hillyer’s five-year-old daughter, Reiko, as a super in Carmen, miming in the children’s chorus that was “dubbed” by offstage female choristers. Corelli, as always, traveled with his wife and handler, Loretta. Lucine Amara, Micaela in Carmen, was accompanied by her coach and manager, Bobbi Tillander. Pavarotti took his family. Bonheur’s wife, Carolyn, reports that when the great tenor was by himself, he would greet the ladies of the company with “a big smooch and a bear hug,” but that when his wife and daughters were on the scene, his manners became considerably more formal.

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Japanese crews move Met scenery
James Heffernan/Metropolitan Opera
 

Allowing for a small amount of never-the-twain-shall-meet confusion, coordination between the Japanese crews and their American supervisors proceeded swimmingly. “When you said something to the Japanese and they said yes,” says head carpenter Stephen Diaz, “it didn’t mean that they were going to do it — it meant they heard you.” Still, the Westerners found themselves amazed at the efficiency of their Japanese coworkers. At the opening-night Traviata, Sutherland came backstage after her Act I curtain calls to find that the set for Act II was already in place. “I don’t care how fast they are,” she said. “I’m getting my twenty-minute break!”

Nobody was quite prepared for the rapt attention of Japanese audiences. “They don’t just go — they study beforehand, so that they know every word,” says Hillyer. Marilyn Horne remembers “the quiet of the audience. It’s not even a question of nobody coughs,” she says. “Nobody moves. That’s very gratifying.” Once the curtain was down, though, audiences were vociferous in their approval, and they treated the visiting dignitaries like rock stars. 

Sutherland and Bonynge spent one of their “off” nights at Bohème — an occasion to hear Dorothy Kirsten as Mimì thirty years after she made her Met debut in the same role. “It was a great thrill for us,” Bonynge says. The only problem was intermission, when the couple found themselves so swarmed by autograph-seekers that they could hardly move. “In America, they’re wonderfully enthusiastic,” says Bonynge, “but they know when to stop.” 

Carolyn Bonheur helped rescue Sutherland from a vexatious situation in the beauty salon of Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel. The hairdresser had obviously never dealt with hair of the texture and sheer voluminousness of Sutherland’s; when Bonheur walked into the shop, she found the stylist yanking painfully at the soprano’s hopelessly tangled coiffure. “Japanese hair is so silky and smooth, so unlike Sutherland’s,” Carolyn says. “And of course there was her size — this little girl must have come up to her waist.” Sutherland attempted to be a good sport but was obviously frustrated. Bonheur gestured to the hairdresser to show her how to hold the hair closer to the root and helped get the soprano out of the salon coiffed and ready for her next public appearance. 

The trip allowed the singers and musicians plenty of sightseeing opportunities. Hillyer organized excursions for the star singers; a specially outfitted bus took them to destinations such as Nikko National Park, studded with temples and shrines. Sutherland and Bonynge went on shopping trips, looking for antique prints, accompanied by the Australian ambassador’s wife. “She spoke Japanese and kept the prices down,” Bonynge says. 

The most intrepid travelers were the orchestral musicians. Since they had scheduled nights off, they could arrange their schedules to allow side trips through the country. Horn-player Rick Reissig booked a first-class pass on Japan Rail, and he and his wife ended up as far afield as Hiroshima. But nobody was more audacious, according to Chuck Bonheur, than a certain trumpet player (Bonheur declined to give his name) who had assiduously offered to cover his colleagues during the American tour, bartering away every one of his Japan commitments. “He got off the plane in Tokyo,” Bonheur says, “and we didn’t see him again until we got on the plane to go back.”

As for Corelli, the high-strung tenor kept to himself. “He just lived for the performance,” says Hillyer. Mary Costa, Musetta in La Bohème, recalls causing a near-crisis backstage before one of Corelli’s performances. “People were concerned, because he was very nervous, and if he wasn’t in top form, he wouldn’t sing,” she says. “I’m making myself up, and through the dressing-room wall, I hear, ‘Maria! Maria! Dammi un C on your pitch pipe!’ I reached down and gave him one. I heard him start softly, then do a scale to the top C — which cracked wide open! I thought, ‘Gosh, that didn’t sound like a C,’ then looked down and realized I had given him a C-sharp! I yelled out, ‘Franco, I’m so sorry — you’re in fabulous voice! You sailed right through the C!’ He went on to give the very best performance you could ever have from him.”

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Met stars Dorothy Kirsten and James McCracken
James Heffernan/Metropolitan Opera
 

Before the tour started, a rumor circulated that one of the performances would be broadcast. Orchestra members were glad to hear this, since it meant an additional fee. But the broadcast turned out to be an area of misunderstanding between the Met and its sponsor: CBC hadn’t budgeted any additional money to pay performers for the broadcast. Still, the sponsor needed the broadcast badly: although ticket sales in Tokyo were brisk, the upcoming Osaka stint seemed to be a box-office dud. Only a broadcast could create enough public awareness to sell tickets. Moreover, CBC had already booked a block of time on national television. If the broadcast fell through, the sponsor would suffer a terrible loss of face. Hillyer says that Kazuya Sakuma, the CBC exec who served as tour liaison, would have been fired.

Hillyer took charge of negotiating concessions from all the various union factions. “I said, ‘You are here for the first time. Japanese people love it, but it’s not selling,’” she says. “‘This is not a matter of economics, it’s a matter of history.’” She succeeded in getting most of the union personnel — principals, chorus, stage crew — to agree to the concession; the one group to vote “nay” was the orchestra. At the Bohème performance the night before the scheduled Traviata broadcast, Hillyer went into overdrive to make the broadcast happen. During the first intermission, she met with the orchestra committee and got them to agree to let her address the whole ensemble. 

The second intermission was an occasion for high drama. “It was almost like a dream — but not a good dream,” says tuba-player Herb Wekselblatt, the orchestra committee’s chairman. In order to persuade the orchestra to agree to put the matter up for another vote, Hillyer brought along the head of the Japanese stagehands’ union, who delivered a speech so impassioned that it left the musicians flabbergasted. “You’ve seen a lot of Japanese movies — you know how they talk gutturally?” Wekselblatt says. “He was telling us what an honor it was to have the Met there, and as he talked that guttural sound kept getting higher and higher. He was getting so upset that it looked like he could have pulled out a knife and disemboweled himself. John Clark, who played trombone, said to me, ‘I don’t want the death of a Japanese stagehand on my conscience!” 

At the third intermission, the orchestra voted overwhelmingly to let the broadcast go forward, with the understanding that the performance would only be broadcast once, then disappear. (The promise hasn’t quite been kept: bits and pieces of this Tokyo Traviata have surfaced on YouTube, offering a rare glimpse of Sutherland’s Violetta.) But the decision generated some bad blood: forty years after the fact, horn-player Clarendon Van Norman grumbles, “We were being taken advantage of.”

When Hillyer talks about her unlikely victory, her eyes tear up. “I went to the pit at the end of the performance, thanking every one of them coming out,” she says. “I told them, ‘This is a big thing for the future of opera in Japan!’” Sure enough, the broadcast saved the tour’s fortunes. Chapin, in his memoir, Musical Chairs, reported that after the telecast, “You couldn’t beat your way to the box office.” 

The Met has returned to Japan six times since 1975, most recently in 2011. Hillyer was not involved in subsequent tours, but there’s no question her efforts from four decades ago changed the Met’s attitude toward Japan from “impossible” to attainable. “No matter what it is, you don’t lose the sight of the goal,” says Hillyer. “It looks impossible, but if I have it in my mind, it always happens for me.” spacer 

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