Performance | Japanese Nō Theatre | Roots of Opera

Several other non-Western cultures have developed genres of musical performance similar to that of opera – they combine music, song, story-telling and theatrical presentation. The most famous of these is the Nō theatre of Japan.

Nō theatre was essentially established in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by the two great playwrights Kan’ami (1333–84) and his son Zeami (1363–1443). These two men drew upon earlier traditions of music and drama to form the highly stylized art that is still performed today. There are five types of Nō play: plays about gods; plays about men; plays about women (usually those that are young and beautiful); plays featuring mad women; and plays concerning supernatural beings. Originally, a performance consisted of a play from each category, with a comic play – known as a kyōgen – inserted between each No. Such performances could last an entire day.

Nō actors – all of whom are men – are of three types: the principal, who wears a mask and represents the main character of the story; the secondary, who enters into dialogue with the principal; and the comic actor who performs the kyōgen. There is also a chorus of eight people that sets the scene and comments on the action, often voicing the other characters’ thoughts and feelings. Accompanying the actors and chorus, as well as performing purely instrumental music and dances, are a flute-player (who plays the bamboo kan) and three drummers.

Nō theatre is performed on a square stage, with a pillar in each corner supporting a roof. The instrumentalists sit at the back, and the chorus kneels on either side of the stage. Traditionally, Nō plays took place outside, but for the last 100 years or so they have often been performed inside buildings specially constructed for the purpose. Today, Tokyo has several such theatres, including the National Nō Theatre, and other major cities in Japan also have dedicated theatres. Nō theatre is still a popular form of entertainment in Japan.

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