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Opera tour brings hope to isolated Japan

By Kyung Lah, CNN
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Opera returns to Japan
  • Metropolitan Opera did not cancel its trip to Japan despite safety fears
  • Visitors to Japan plummeted in the wake of tsunami and on-going nuclear crisis
  • Theater workers have not worked for months as companies canceled Japan tours

Tokyo (CNN) -- The dark-red velvet curtain rose in the opera hall in Tokyo's Shibuya district, as the opening strains of the orchestra filled the large space.

The audience seemed to hold its breath in unison, until the first aching notes of La Boheme emanated from the lead.

The crowd relaxed because unlike many other companies since the March 11 tsunami, the New York Metropolitan Opera did not cancel its trip to Japan.

Three months after the disaster, the prestigious "Met" is the first major performing arts company to visit the country since the disaster -- perhaps a potent sign that some things may be returning to normal.

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Backstage, hundreds of actors, singers, and stage crew buzzed with activity as the first act unfolded, among them Japanese workers who haven't worked for months as international companies canceled their tours.

"The Japanese staff is so moved that the Met is here," said Akiko Kodama, the show's producer hired in Japan, who said many performances, from classical to theater productions, had been cancelled.

"We were hoping that they would indeed come, but when we finally confirmed the dates, everyone here was just so relieved. So we're just so grateful to the Met."

The number of international visitors to Japan has plummeted in the wake of the tsunami and the on-going nuclear crisis. The Japan National Tourist Organization said tourism in March fell by 50.3% and by 62.5% in April. And Japan's theater sector, one that relies on international tours, has struggled to survive.

I think it was the right thing to do, just come and help them with our singing.
--Soprano Barbara Frittoli

The Met estimates that it will employ 80 Japanese actors, 32 singers, and a 100-strong stage crew during its three-week tour.

"I think it's very important that we give a kick-start to the Japanese theatrical companies," said Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. He spoke to CNN backstage on opening night.

"All these stagehands you see behind me running around are mostly Japanese and they're getting to work for the first time in months. For the Met to be here, it sets an example and tone for other arts companies as well as tourists."

But the tour to Japan did not happen without challenges of its own.

According to the Met, singers Anna Netrebko and Joseph Calleja "hesitated to visit Japan at this time," prompting a casting crisis just weeks before the company was due in Japan. One soprano was released from another concert in Paris to join the tour, while a tenor canceled his vacation to Argentina -- part of a flurry of singers who shifted their commitments to head for Japan.

Soprano Barbara Frittoli stepped into the lead soprano role of Mimi for La Boheme.

"I had to do, I had to do this role to help them," said Frittoli, who added that she felt absolutely comfortable with the tour after meeting with scientific and medical experts consulting with the Met. "I think it was the right thing to do, just come and help them with our singing."

Gelb admitted the shuffling of singers and the need to maintain the Met's standard of excellence was a personal challenge.

"I've been in the arts all my life. This is the most difficult tour I've had to manage." He added the last minute performer cancellations "kept me up at night and over a period of a few days as we tried to get replacements."

Part of what drove Gelb to continue on with the tour was the Japanese fans, who Gelb called among the most devoted opera fans in the world.

Hiroshi Ito, a theater-goer who had been disappointed for the last three months as shows were canceled, came up to our CNN camera crew with a message for the Met staff.

In halting English, he said: "Many players from around the world cancelled on us. But this big New York Metropolitan came. I feel your friendship. Thank you very much. I feel so good about this. That's what I want to say."