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Mihoko Fujimura: The Totally Dedicated Artist

December 30, 2019

Making her debut at the Bayreuth Festival in 2002 as Fricka in Der Ring des Nibelungen, mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura has since become an in-demand artist for Wagnerian roles, returning to the festival for nine years as Waltraute, Erda, and Kundry in Parsifal. Indeed, in 2018 The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini wrote that Fujimura sang Brangäne (Tristan und Isolde) with a “big, bright sound and urgency.”

Other engagements include performances at the great opera houses of the world such as Staatsoper Wien, Staatsoper München, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, and Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires. Born in Japan in 1966, Fujimura studied at Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music and boasts an esteemed discography. Included are her recordings of Brangäne with Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera for EMI Classics, Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 with the Bamberg Symphony conducted by Jonathan Nott (and another recording of the same piece released this year with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic, and several recordings of Beethoven Symphony No. 9, including one with Christian Thielemann and the Vienna Philharmonic, from 2016. In addition, Fujimura’s six solo recital discs feature works by, among others, Wagner, Schubert, Strauss, and Brahms.

Fujimura, who was awarded the Purple Ribbon Medal of Honor by the Japanese government for her contribution to academic and artistic developments in 2014, can be seen in March, in a Live From the Met telecast of a new production of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer (The flying Dutchman) with Valery Gergiev on the podium. But before then, Angelenos will have a chance to hear the mezzo in Mahler’s majestic Symphony No. 2 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Jan. 3–5 under the baton of Zubin Mehta. I had a chance to catch up with the singer by email from Munich, where she has made her home for a number of years.

Was there music in your family and when did you first realize that you wanted to be a singer?

My father was a very good singer and my mother played vibraphone in school orchestras and went to the prefecture competition. When I was 4 or 5, I sang all the time. On Sundays, the only day off [from] school, I would get up at 5 a.m., sit my three dogs in front of me as my audience, and would make up songs and perform [for] them. My walk to school took 40 minutes, so I would also spend this time singing, and when I was 6, I started piano lessons. However, singing was my absolute favorite.

Whilst I was a [university] student, I twice attended Hans Hotter’s master class in Munich. After my second visit with him I began to sing much better, so I decided to come to Munich to study.

My thinking was very simple, I wanted to test myself; I wanted to know where I was — that is to say — whether or not I would get work in Europe as an Asian singer. I had sung in numerous competitions and auditions for agencies and theaters.

[But] when I sang in a theater in Germany, the director said to me, “Your singing technique is perfect, you sing excellently, you look good and I can imagine that you are a very good actress. But we take Germans.” It became clear to me: Whether or not I can sing at the same level as other Germans or white singers, nobody will take me because I’m an Asian. I have to be 10 times, if not a hundred times better than my white counterparts.

What was it like singing in the Bayreuth Festival for nearly a decade?

I sang there for nine years, but I also spent a year as a cover for Brangäne, so I was actually there for 10 years. When I was a student, I won the Wagner competition and Bayreuth hired me as cover for Brangäne in 1995. Imagine a shy Japanese student suddenly standing in front of Waltraud Meier, Siegfried Jerusalem, Falk Struckmann, Matthias Hölle, and Heiner Müller! I was the first Japanese singer to sing the leading role in the Bayreuth Festival. What an honor that I was allowed to sing all the mezzo roles there.

You recently sang Mahler’s Second with Zubin Mehta at Disney Hall as part of the LA Phil’s centennial celebration. What are your thoughts on working with Mehta and the Phil — and what are your thoughts on this monumental work?

In 1919, the debris from the First World War had just been removed. The first music director, Maestro Rothwell, was the assistant conductor of Gustav Maher. I am very grateful that I could sing for such an historic anniversary seven times, and 10 years ago, an interviewer asked me who I wanted to work with. I said “Maestro Dudamel.” So, my dream came true in June [when I sang Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 with him].

And this is how I came to meet Zubin. I was the cover for Brangäne at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. I did all the scenic rehearsals for six weeks, then the day of the orchestra rehearsal with soloists, I finally had a free day. That morning I received a call: “Ms. Fujimura, come quickly. Ms. [Marjana] Lipovšek is sick.” I quickly dried my hair and sang in the car in a traffic jam. When I arrived, the rehearsal had already begun.

As I opened the door, it was my first line, so I had to start singing straight away. There was no time to introduce myself to the famous star singers. During the break, Zubin told me to report to his secretary. I thought “Yes!” And since then I’ve been able to sing almost every role with him.

You recorded Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder (Songs of Gurre Castle) with Mariss Jansons and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (BRSO). As he recently passed away, I’m wondering what your thoughts are on having worked with him?

Since I admired and respected him so much, I cried for 10 days. Maestro Jansons was only interested in music, nothing else. He was a very warmhearted person. Perhaps that could be the story of his Jewish mother giving birth to her son Mariss in a hiding place where she had fled after her father and brother died in the Riga ghetto.

As you know, there are a lot of soloists in Gurre-Lieder [and] my dressing room was very far from the stage. Maestro Jansons arrived at the concert hall and immediately came all that way to tell me, “I have conducted this piece very often. But nobody ever sang it so beautifully. I swear to you.” In today’s superficial music world, there are not so many musicians that focus only on the music. He was my role model and I will never forget his passion for music.

You’ve performed in all the great opera houses of the world, in various productions and under the world’s greatest conductors. Is there anywhere you would like to perform that you haven’t yet and is there a conductor or orchestra you would like to work with that you haven’t?

I would very much love to work with Maestro Kirill Petrenko and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Since I’m making my Metropolitan Opera debut in March, I don’t have many more wishes for opera houses. But there is an opera house in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, called the Alisher Navoi Opera Theater, which was built by 457 Japanese prisoners of war between 1944 and 1947.

Since these Japanese were very hardworking, the townspeople came to respect them and developed a friendship with them. In 1966 there were major earthquakes in Tashkent and almost all the houses were destroyed, however the opera house remained completely intact and the citizens could find refuge there. I would like to sing there and visit the cemetery of the Japanese prisoners of war.

What is your vocal regimen like and how do you stay in good physical shape?

I work — work meaning memorizing or reading notes — from the morning until 4 pm. Then I do simple yoga, stretch, and core-muscle exercises, then I do paperwork until 10 p.m. — without a day off. I eat no meat, no [refined] flour, no sugar, no alcohol, and I bake bread myself. I hardly ever go out of the house. When I have an evening performance, I don’t say a word all day.

But I think the most important for one’s body is the mind. I am very attentive to what I think. I’ve seen enough bad examples with my skin color. I swore to myself that I would never be “like these.” I know what it is to ache, what pain is, so I don’t do “that” to others.

How has the business of opera changed since you began your career?

The current opera or classical music world has become [an] industry, a business. Record companies are only interested in making money. Outward appearance is the most important thing [and] photos are manipulated with a computer. Nobody talks about interpretation or how they make music. Many opera houses have to save money, so they look for fresh meat, let them sing, and then another one will come along next year. Singers have become like disposable bottles.

Scientifically speaking, music is repeated tones. In this repetition, we humans find emotions that we didn’t know we possessed, or that we suppressed. All stage artists are slaves to their daily physical condition. Nevertheless, I feel particularly committed to the audience and always do my best. We singers are obliged to tell people what the composer wanted. So, we are actually an instrument, a door opener. We should actually be without ego.

It is not without reason that the music of the brilliant composers has survived to this day, and their works must be taken seriously. There is always a risk that they will be damaged by fashionable gadgets. But the audience “invests” their hard-earned money and takes the time to go to the theater and concert hall, so we are inevitably obliged to give something back. Because at best, good music can comfort and even heal people.

What advice would you give to young singers today?

When I hear Billie Holiday or Miles Davis, it hurts directly. I am a mezzo-soprano and therefore I could not sell as Cho-Cho-san in Madama Butterfly. That’s why I had to experience a lot as an Asian. However, when I look back now, I have learned a lot. Although that is not my goal, I am happy when someone tells me when I come on stage that the air feels changed or they felt my aura.

When I hear young singers, I very often hear copies of others, and think, “Aha, someone was looking at YouTube again!“ I think not only I, but also the audience would like to hear your own interpretation. If you copy, the audience can go home and watch DVDs. So, I say “Sing your own singing.” Which means, read the text, interpret what the poet means, read what the composer meant. Your singing is equivalent to how you live.

Where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?

God, who has always protected me, will accompany me, even after 10 years. I just have to take care to follow him.

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning international arts journalist who covers dance, music, theater and the visual arts. Publications she has contributed to include the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and KCET Artbound. Her feminist novella in verse, Isn’t It Rich? is being adapted for the stage, and her children’s/coffee table book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet, will soon be published by Red Sky Presents. In addition, Looseleaf co-founded the online magazine ArtNowLA.