Metropolitan Opera in Japan (A)

New York, N.Y. Becoming an Impresario in 1967, I immediately began working on bringing Kabuki from Japan to America – the Grand Kabuki, which is the most important performing arts in Japan.

After accomplishing this in 1969, I thought to bring the Metropolitan Opera (MET), America’s best arts group, to Japan. This would be rewarding and a true cultural exchange between our two countries.

Inviting the Met Opera to Japan was not a new idea. Many times before, various organizations had tried, but there were always so many difficulties. In addition, there would be enormous costs and the idea was given up. I guess there were no idiots like me before who did not give up!

When I started negotiations in 1970, the then general manager at the Met, Mr. Skyla Chapin, flatly refused. “I cannot even fathom a calculation of what it would cost as would be so so absolutely enormous to render it impossible.

But I persevered and got the numbers and indeed they were astronomical – I was shocked to see how high they were. But I refused to give up. I struggled to secure various sponsorships while many months passed. Finally, Nagoya Chukyo TV decided to sponsor the tour, and we lay a plan to do this in 1975 on the occasion of the company’s anniversary. 

The Metropolitan Opera with all of its’ 400 people, sets and costumes went to Japan! The idea itself was overwhelming. I negotiated with many performers and pulled together a luxurious dream team with big stars such as Luciano Pavarotti, Franco Corelli (tenor), Joan Sutherland (soprano), Marilynn Horn (mezzo soprano), etc. This too was a first time in Metropolitan Opera history!

This was the first time an overseas tour of the Met in its totality was launched. We needed three chartered aircraft for members alone, in addition to two cargo planes and a cargo ship. I chose only famous operas for the Japanese audiences, “La Boheme,” “Carmen,” and “La Traviata.”

The tour cities were chosen: Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. But when we opened the box office, although Tokyo tickets sold fairly well, Osaka did not sell well and Nagoya was even slower – absolutely no tickets sold at all! 

I did not hear of this until after the tour had started and the performances began. If we could not sell out in all three cities, our sponsor’s Chukyo TV would suffer a big deficit and Mr. Sakuma who was in charge would have to resign – or be headed! The situation was indeed serious.

When I think of it now, Western Opera had not yet penetrated Japan in 1975 as it has now. I think people in Osaka and Nagoya who would enjoy opera were few.

So, I came up with an idea: a live broadcast of the Tokyo performance on NHK TV. Sadly, my idea was totally rejected by Metropolitan Opera’s management.

“TV production of the opera would cost more money a performance. Don’t even think anything about free service!,” the management told me. They totally opposed it.

They added:. There are many unions and these would never agree. When I protested and asked about the Unions, they said at last, “Our opera has a total of fourteen labor unions. There is a union of singers, union of orchestras, union of stage staffs, union of costumes, make up, etc. Contracts demand that all agree which would never happen.”

I proposed a bombshell of an idea. Hypothetically, I asked, if each of these many unions would each agree, might this be miraculously possible? Would that not work??

Management said, “We will have absolutely nothing to do with these kind of talks.We have heard nothing today.” I replied, “Fine, I do not have to talk and negotiate with you now. But please allow me to negotiate with the unions and I will negotiate directly with all labor unions.”

They thought it was impossible for all fourteen unions to agree and finally said, “Well,  we do not know anything about this.” The management people team then seemed to disappear into Karuizawa or somewhere.

Direct Negotiation with Fourteen Unions

Thus, I began the first direct negotiations in Met history with their individual unions. Slowly, we negotiated with the members of each union and their heads late every night after each performance.

I emphasized that the tradition of Western Opera in Japan was just beginning and that they were making history. Tickets can not be sold easily as this is so new, but it is certain that many opera fans will be created and able to enjoy so opera into the future.

You, as members of the great Metropolitan Opera, are pioneering this. Are you excited to be the cause of opera’s future in Japan?

It was the singers’ union who was first unanimously accepted, most favorably and they immediately agreed. Then, however, the orchestra union scolded and booed me – they totally rejected my idea.

But I pushed on with negotiations with the unions for chorus, costumes, makeup, stage equipment and so on. Each in turn agreed. I went back to the orchestra union at the end. I had 13 of the 14 unions lined up and finally this holdout union fell into line. It was accepted for the broadcasting.

At this time the Tokyo performances were almost finished. It looked like the timing was already too late! The Met was set to head to other cities on the tour shortly thereafter. Negotiations with the NHK Hall, the venue, had also been agreed with NHK, in charge of live broadcasting.

The next day was the last day of the Tokyo performance, “La Traviata.” About two days before they were to leave, the story of my pitch finally grew stronger and every labor union fell into place.

Originally published as Vol. 22 in Weekly Biz, April14, 2018; translated by Jim Luce.

See: Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura Column in Japan’s Weekly Biz



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About Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura

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Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura
Dr. Kazuko was born into a distinguished old family in Kyoto, Japan, and graduated from Toho conservatory of Music in Tokyo. In 1961 she came to U.S. as a pianist sponsored by the Boston Symphony. She studied at Boston University, New York University, and received her Ph.D. in Oriental Medicine from New York State University and the International Academy of Education in Tokyo. From 1968 to 1992, she promoted cultural exchanges from East to West and vice versa, and became a world famous impresario, producing 2,000 events each year all over the world encompassing over 140 countries. In this connection, in 1972, she went to Dharamsala to find the lost Tibetan Folk Opera, and met His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with whom she remains a lifelong friend. In 1973 and 1991 she arranged and funded personally the tours of the Folk Opera of Tibet to the West. She has received many medals and honors from different countries. Her tireless life long work in Philanthropic field is vast and well known ranging from Save the Beacon Theater, Save the Boat People, Help the Homeless, natural disasters of earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as relief to AIDS and HIV positive children in Africa. She has been a dedicated Board Member to both the J. Luce Foundation and Orphans International for years. Her work focuses on the Tibetan people; Tibetan children remain especially strong in her heart. She raised fund for the new academic building for Manjushree Orphanage in Tawang, India and supported many aspects of the school. See HuffPo pieces entitled Japanese Holistic Healer in NYC to Build School for Tibetan Orphans in India, A Japanese Dinner with Raul Castro’s Daughter, and NYC Gala in Support of Tibetan Orphans Set for January.

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