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Yoshikazu Mera (Counter-tenor)

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See: Yoshikazu Mera – Short Biography


Yoshikazu Mera

Patrik Enander
wrote (November 29, 1999):
He is a big (133 cm!) star selling very well also in Sweden. So he has paid us a visit. I read in Dagens Nyheter, the leading Swedish newspaper, how he came about to become a star. He was "only" a member of the choir when they recorded vol.1. But on a party afterwards he stood up and sang a Japanese song. It moved Robert von Bahr, BIS owner, to tears and he decided that he would be a soloist instead. The rest is history... What was news to me is that Mera will be part of the new Gardiner recordings of the cantatas.

I assume that there are native Germans on this list. For them I have a question. To me the Japanese singer's German sounds idiomatic (I've studied German for couple of years and it is quite closely related to Swedish) I'm very impressed by it. How does it sound to a native speaker?

Samuel Frederick wrote (November 30, 1999):
< Patrick Enander wrote: I assume that there are native Germans on this list. For them I have a question. To me the Japanese singer's German sounds idiomatic (I've studied German for couple of years and it is quite closely related to Swedish) I'm very impressed by it. How does it sound to a native speaker? >
I'm not a native German, but am a student of the language and its literatures. Diction is an odd thing in musical performance. I find that sometimes even the Germans can't get it just right. Mera is usually dead-on. I think his diction is nearly perfect, in fact. However, as I have complained before on the list, his pronunciation of "Stricken" on the Suzuki Johannes Passion (BWV 245) (aria: "Von den Stricken...") is, to my ears, a little off. Since this word is repeated often, it can become annoying. The only flaw in what I think is masterful recording.

Perhaps he's trying to approximate a Saechsisch dialect of the 18th century?


Yoshikazu Mera

Ricky W. Barnett
wrote (March 3, 2002):
I had the good fortune to spend last evening at a party in Tokyo with Yoshikazu Mera. He was a charming man and kept us all very amused with a few impromptu renditions. It was a priviledge to here such beautiful singing close up.


Great countertenor

Robert Sherman wrote (April 27, 2002):
Rodrigo's very thoughtful post [See: BWV 232 – Abbado] raises another subject.

As I've made clear before in this space, I don't like countertenors. I don't like men trying to sound like women and I don't like cold, hard, hooty sound. Secondarily, I don't think that whatever sexist prejudices constrained Bach should constrain us today. Also, I am not particularly fond of Masaaki Suzuki's performances.

All that being said, I have nothing but praise for the unique young Japanese countertertenor Yohikazu Mera, at least for his performance on Suzuki's Messiah. It's not just that Mera's musicianship, ornamentation, and technique are fine, or that his English is perfect. Other countertenors do that too. More important: Mera's sound is different from any other I've heard. It isn't cold or hard or hooty. It's uniquely warm and pleasant, with a normal-sounding vibrato. He doesn't sound like a female alto or the conventional countertenor. On the contrary, it's as if he's invented a new instrument of his own. One possible explanation is that he first intended to be a tenor, and he's simply taken his tenor concept a half-octave higher. This would contrast with other countertenors, who usually start their musical lives as baritones; of course the baritone concept can't be taken up an octave so they do something entirely different and fall into the cold/hard/hooty trap.

IMO it would be terrific if his conception were now to become the countertenor convention. I'd be interested in other list members' reactions to Mera.

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 27, 2002):
[To Robert Sherman] Suzuki used Mera in the BIS cantata series in volumes 1-8 and after that he switched primarily to Robin Blaze whose voice I have trouble associating with Bach's religious texts in the cantatas. Blaze may be fine for Baroque operas where playacting is just as important as singing, but anything less than genuine expression will not work with Bach's cantatas. Blaze is IMO the weakest link in the Suzuki series in volumes 9 to 17. It is too bad that Suzuki has been unable to find anyone else who might do it better. Andreas Scholl would be far superior to Robin Blaze in this voice category, and specifically for Bach. I have found Mera's presentations to be more 'truthful' than Blaze's because there is little attempt to draw attention to the voice simply as a voice. Mera's version of the cantata BWV 54 "Widerstehe doch der Sünde" attracted me to the beautiful quality of this voice which blends very well with the instruments. The drawback with Mera, and perhaps this is the reason why he did not continue in the Suzuki series, is that the volume in the lower range of his voice becomes almost non-existent. Compare Mera's version with Andreas Scholl's [Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi]. and you will hear what Mera is lacking. Mera has perhaps found no way to add more strength to this part of his range while, on the other hand non-Asian countertenors generally have trouble controlling the falsetto part of their voice range, thereby causing the unpleasantness that I associate with these voices. I have often wondered whether the generally smaller stature of the Japanese (I hope I am not over-generalizing here - Sumo wrestlers etc. notwithstanding), or perhaps also the manner in which the Japanese use their vocal organs in producing speech, is responsible for the differences in how they sing Bach: somewhat narrower and constricted with a more penetrating quality that makes up for the lack of volume in the lower registers of the voice. Mera somehow found a way to restrain and modify the 'piercing' quality that frequently appears, but he lost depth, and along with that, the ability for expression which is also needed in a Bach cantata aria.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (April 27, 2002):
< Thomas Braatz wrote: Suzuki used Mera in the BIS cantata series in volumes 1-8 and after that he switched primarily to Robin Blaze >
Mera is in the SJP but not the SMP. I agree that his voice is entrancing, but Blaze is brilliant in the SMP.

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 27, 2002):
[To Kirk McElhearn] I have Suzuki's SJP but not the SMP. Is this only a DVD version, or has it also been released by BIS as a standard CD?

Marten Breuer wrote (April 27, 2002):
< Thomas Braatz wrote: The drawback with Mera, and perhaps this is the reason why he did not continue in the Suzuki series, is that the volume in the lower range of his voice becomes almost non-existent. >
If I am correctly informed, Suzuki discontinued the co-operation with Mera due to personal differences and not for musical reasons. Mera is some kind of pop-star in Japan. If I remember correctly, Suzuki had the impression of Mera not sufficiently supporting the cantatas' religious dimension.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (April 27, 2002):
[To Thomas Braatz] On CD. The first time was, I think, two years ago. It was just rereleased together with the SJP.

Thomas Braatz wrote (April 28, 2002):
Kirk stated: < Mera is in the SJP but not the SMP. I agree that his voice is entrancing, but Blaze is brilliant in the SMP. Mera is in the SJP but not the SMP. I agree that his voice is entrancing, but Blaze is brilliant in the SMP. >
I found the recording of the SMP with Blaze (1999) and listened to the following:

Aria (6) Buß und Reu
Aria (27) So ist mein Jesus
Aria (30) Wo ist mein Jesus hin?
Aria (39) Erbarme dich
Recit (51) Erbarme es Gott
Aria (52) Können Tränen
Recit (59) Ach Golgatha
Aria (60) Sehet Jesus

I personally do not hear what is brilliant in these renditions that are plagued by a voice that is narrow and penetrating most of the time. When Blaze holds out a long note, he graduallincreases the volume (which is fine) but then suddenly, as if losing control, breaks into a wide, slow vibrato. This is disconcerting, but not as bad as the serious problems that he has singing in German. He frequently has the wrong vowel quality, possibly caused by straining or contorting certain aspects crucial to the production of vocal sounds. Final syllables are not clearly enunciated. He can be very harshly penetrating in the high range, but when he is forced to try to produce a meaningful sound in the low range there is almost nothing there. In (27) he drops the low B natural a few times or it is extremely weak. In (60) there is nothing at all on the low notes B, Bb and G. In (52) which Suzuki takes much too fast and treats as if it were a courtly dance, Blaze has difficulty fitting all the words in and begins to sound silly if you consider the seriousness of the text that is being sung.

For comparison I listened to Mera’s BWV 54 (Widerstehe doch der Sünde) and discovered that Mera does not wobble as much and as widely on the long notes as Blaze did in the SMP. Mera’s voice is less strident and penetrating, and in the low range there was much more volume than Blaze can muster. Mera has a decent way of treating long held notes that does not distract.

I also listened to Andreas Scholl in the latter cantata and perceived that he has more vocal power throughout his larger range, more than either Mera or Blaze. This means that there is a greater amount of expression possible, and, very important, the German is impeccable with no unusual distortions. This means that there is nothing artificial between the listener and the music.

Esswood, in the same aria, exhibits too much of a trembling, fast vibrato that he uses on each and every note. This demonstrates a lack of vocal control, an insecurity on his part. He is also weak in the low range much the way Blaze is.

A quote from Agricola, who was a student of Bach’s and attended Leipzig University:

“Der Unterweiser lasse auch seinen Untergebenen die Noten fest aushalten lernen, so, daß dabey die Stimme nicht zittere und nicht hin und her wanke…der Fehler, mit dem Tone immer hin und her zu flattern: nach Art derer, die mit dem übelsten Geschmacke singen.“ (p. 47)

„The vocal teacher/coach should have his student hold onto the notes firmly, in such a way, that the voice does not tremble or break into a vibrato…this mistake, to allow the note/tone to flutter back and forth is one of that type made by those who sing with the worst possible taste (the opposite of good taste in musical performance.)”

Robert Sherman wrote (April 28, 2002):
[To Thomas Braatz] Tom, Thanks for these thoughtful and useful comments. But what intrigues me most about Mera is his basic sound, which is warm and open, rather than cold hard and hooty as are all other countertenors I've heard. Nobody responded to my initial comment on this. Am I the only one who hears Mera this way?

Francine Renee Hall wrote (April 28, 2002):
I'm no expert when it comes to singing. I received a free full-fledged CD of Andreas Scholl at Tower called Deutsche Barock Lieder back in 1995. Years ago I had some 'drinking' songs' from Renaissance Germany and it sounded full and robust as I think the subject matter would insist. However, Scholl sounded way too dignified and dainty while doing the same drinking songs. Since then I have his singing voice as parts of operas and oratorios and he sounds much better. The second countertenor I bought was as a test to see what all the buzz about Robin Blaze was. It was a cut-out of Blaze doing Elizabethan songs with lute. What I heard sounded like an old woman with a very wide wobble for vibrato. Is something wrong with me? I guess it would be best to hear Blaze as part of an ensemble, an opera, etc.? I really do like countertenors when done well!!!

Donald Satz wrote (April 28, 2002):
[To Francine Renee Hall] Personally, I've never warmed to the Robin Blaze voice, finding him lacking in expressiveness. Scholl is a much better propostion.

Piotr Jaworski wrote (April 29, 2002):
Mera and Blaze at Suzuki series

[To Thomas Braatz] I'd personally strongly support Kirk's opinion. This is - more or less - the "matter of taste" debate. No matter musicological background, knowledge etc. - still - only taste. Blaze is great in Suzuki SMP. And while I can understand your arguments (below) I completely ... don't share them. Moreover - I tend to ignore them. Because the overall interpretation is great, I like it so much - all the 'elements' perfectly suit to each other - choir, orchestra, soloists.

So - to me - is Blaze. The man I consider one of the most interesting active countertenors.

Also in Bach cantatas. For a while - after Mera's 'departure' - fans of Suzuki where a bit afraid about the future of this project. But every new CD confirms - again IMO - that Blaze was the perfect choice. I don't miss Mera any longer ...

It looks that even in the world of music, some feel comfortable using very - not to say 'extremely' - strong words to express their opinions. To me, the result is that your measures also "have difficulty fitting" your intentions.

There is a perfect quote I'll reply to your Agricola, a sentence from "Dictionary of Khazars" by Milorad Pavic ... I'll ... but tomorrow, promise.

Michael Grover wrote (April 29, 2002):
[To Robert Sherman] My favorite countertenor (not having heard Scholl yet) is Daniel Taylor with the American Bach Soloists. His rendition of "Wir eilen..." from BWV 78 is outstanding (with Catherine Bott, soprano.) My review:
http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV78-D.htm (scroll down to the very bottom; I was the last poster.)


How Bach came to Japan + Mera

Thomas Braatz wrote (December 5, 2002):
I came across two articles that are worth reading, particularly since they concern Suzuki and Mera (who recorded 15 Bach cantatas with Suzuki and then suddenly stopped.)

See also: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Bio/Mera-Yoshikazu.htm

Countertenor Mera strikes perfect note
Yukiko Kishinami Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Countertenor Yoshikazu Mera sings in nine different languages on his new release, Subete no Hito no Kokoro ni Hanataba o (Flowers for Everyone's Heart), which features 12 folk songs from around the world.

The songs on the album, released in early November, are sung in Japanese, Indonesian, English, Spanish, Mandarin, Italian, Hawaiian, Korean and Russian. The two tracks in English are the Irish folk song "Down in the Salley Garden" and a medley of two gospel songs, "Amazing Grace" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hand." Other numbers include "Amapola," "El Condor Pasa," "Aloha' Oe" and "Ariran."

"Chinese was the most difficult to sing," Mera, 31, said of the Mandarin song, "When Will You Return?" "There are many sounds in Chinese that are not found in Japanese, and each word has a very Chinese nuance. We often hear Cantonese in Japan, but I didn't know much about Mandarin, which sounds a lot softer than Cantonese."

The concept of the CD came from his interest in Asia as a whole.

"The world is changing drastically these days," he said. "I have a feeling that Asia will be more united decades from now, more like the EU, because things that happen in the West also eventually happen in Asia. As an Asian, I always wanted to study other Asian languages. And I've also learned a few Western languages, and I thought--why not put them all together on one disc."

The final track on the CD is "Hana," one of Mera's favorite songs, originally sung by Okinawa folk singer Shokichi Kano in 1980. The song's subtitle provided the title of the disc.

The CD, in which he sings as a tenor as well as a countertenor, is his first in three years--a surprising gap considering that he released 10 discs in the four years before that.

"For the first time in my career, I had a kind of block," Mera said. "2000 was the worst. I had to cancel many important engagements, like Rinaldo at Bayern State Opera in Muniand a concert tour with conductor John Elliot Gardner. I was simply depressed and overextended."

It has been five years since he sang the title song for the megahit animated movie, Mononoke-hime (Princess Mononoke). That song became a phenomenal hit, selling about 500,000 copies, and making "countertenor" a household word. His genderless, soothing voice won him many fans overseas, as well, leading to singing engagements with operatic stars such as Edita Gruberova and Jochen Kowalski. In Scandinavian countries, Mera's diminutive statue won him the affectionate nickname "Elf."

But sudden stardom took its toll. He became extremely busy, sometimes giving 15 performances a month, all in different locations. Because he refused to use a microphone out of pride in being a classically trained singer, he became worn out, both physically, especially his voice, and mentally.

"When I was really down, I did nothing but read," Mera said. "I'm not religious, but I read the Bible and books on Buddhism, and found that even great figures like Buddha suffered criticism. I also received help from many people, such as Ms. Gruberova."

As a young man, he was very focused on doing well himself, and, he said, that's the prerogative of the young. But, he continued, "when you turn 30, you realize that you owe your success to others around you. I'm sure I will face many more blocks in the future, but what matters is how I grow out of them."

As a teenager, Mera used to sing traditional Japanese folk songs. He entered Senzoku Gakuen College in Tokyo at age 18 as a tenor. He knew nothing about countertenors, but when a teacher suggested he switch, he decided to give it a try. By his mid-20s, he had already made headway into the classical music scene in Japan, regularly singing with top-rate ensembles, such as Bach Collegium Japan.

"I don't really like tenors very much, because they often sound macho," he said. "For example, the aria 'He was despised' in Messiah sounds too brilliant when sung by a tenor, whereas when I hear it sung by a woman, it presents more of the spiritual quality."

As a countertenor, his range is roughly that of a mezzo-soprano.

"I think they need someone like me in classical music, someone who dares to take risks and do many different things," he said.

Mera's recital will be held on Dec. 7, 6:30 p.m. at Matsuidamachi Bunka Kaikan in Matsuidamachi, Gunma Prefecture, and Dec. 9, 7 p.m. at Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall in Hatsudai, Tokyo. He will be joined by Yoko Kitahara and String Ensemble.

Feature: Xavier's meandering mission
By Uwe Siemon-Netto
UPI Religion Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Dec. 2 (UPI) -- Church history is full of ironic twist and turns, to wit the meandering mission tale of St. Francis Xavier, who died at age 46 off the coast of China 450 years ago this Tuesday.

Some might consider much of his Far Eastern ministry a failure, considering that he never made it to the Celestial Empire and his initial successes in Japan were rolled back to the extent that Christianity ceased to exist there for many centuries.

But a different case can be made if one looks at this story from a longer perspective. Francis Xavier, the Navarre-born patron saint of missionaries, was a founding member of the Jesuits, one of whose assignments it was to undo the Lutheran Reformation.

Yet Japanese musicologists believe that he of all people planted the seeds for today's "Bach boom" in their country. Johann Sebastian Bach, whose popularity in Japan now seems to have some modest missionary effects, was, of course, a Lutheran composer. If all this sounds bewildering, let's proceed chronologically. On Aug. 15, 1749, Francis Xavier landed in Kagashima in Japan. He came from Portuguese Goa in India via the Molucca Islands and spent the first year learning the Japanese language; soon he preached the gospel in many cities in the southern part of the country.

Over the next decades, the Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries who followed Francis Xavier baptized 20 percent of Japan's population, including members of princely families. It soon became fashionable to promenade around Nagasaki carrying rosaries.

However, in 1587, the shogun Hideyoshi expelled all missionaries. A murderous persecution of all Christians followed. Believers were crucified, burned at the stake, tortured to death or hanged upside-down over cesspools to intensify their suffering.

Soon Christianity disappeared from Japan, except for a few small islands, where it mixed with other faiths into a syncretistic amalgam. However, one thing never quite vanished, according to contemporary Japanese musicologists -- their compatriots' appreciation of the Western tonality Francis Xavier and his brethren had introduced to Japan.

There was the Gregorian chant. There were the roaring organs the missionaries built from bamboo pipes. They trained Japanese children so well in handling the Queen of the Instruments that in the 1560s three young princes from Nippon were competent enough to be sent to Europe to play the organ before illustrious audiences, including in the Vatican.

By the time Christianity was eradicated in Japan, in the early 17th century, elements of Western music had infiltrated Japanese folk song. That influence evidently remained strong enough to help Bach's art sweep across the island nation more than four centuries later.

Now Francis Xavier's import does mission once again, albeit in an indirect and limited way, the organist Masaaki Suzuki told this writer. A little over a decade ago, Suzuki founded the Japan Bach Consortium and turned it into an ensemble of world renown.

Its concerts are always sold out. Bach aficionados pay hundreds of dollars for a ticket to the consortium's performance of the Christmas Oratorio or St. Matthew Passion.

"It's very moving to watch these enormous crowds follow the Japanese translations of the German lyrics word for word," said Yoshikazu Tokuzen, former president of his country's National Christian Council. "Where else in the world do you find non-Christians so engrossed in Christian texts?"

Suzuki added that after each performance non-Christian members of the audience crowd him on the podium to talk to him about topics that are normally taboo in Japanese society -- death, for example. "Then they inevitably ask me what 'hope' means to Christians."

It seems ironic enough that Bach, the Lutheran, now does the missionary work Francis Xavier, the Jesuit, had started back in the 16th century. But now figure this: Masashi Masuda from Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, converted to Christianity after hearing a recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations played by Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist.

Guess what Masuda did next? He became a Jesuit and is now teaching systematic theology at Tokyo's Sophia University, which is owned by his -- and Francis Xavier's -- order.

Copyright © 2002 United Press International

Boyd Pehrson wrote (December 7, 2002):
[To Thomas Braatz] One might also see Uwe Siemon-Netto's complimentary article in "First Things" Magazine online:
http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0006/opinion/siemon-netto.html

Ludwig wrote (December 7, 2002):
[To Thomas Braatz] Sorry, but I was disappointed with your posting as I thought you were going to tell me how some wealthy Japanese tycoon had either bought a Bach manuscript or found one.

Nevertheless, as a composer I am interested in folk tunes and have never heard that I am aware of the folk tune you mention <Down in the Salley Garden> have the same music as 'Down in the Valley---valley so low etc"

Mandarin is the elite proper form Chinese and was once the property of the educated upper classes and the Emperor's Court. During the cultural revolution; it was dangerous to speak this form of Chinese.

Forgive me but as someone who has a great deal of expertise on the Organ may I say that you have been misinformed or have confused the Philipines with Japan.

Unless there is some record that I and others have not come across that you may know about (please educate us if this is the case); there were never anyWestern style organs built of bamboo in Japan in the early days of Christianity.

There was an instrument that came over from China (whose name I can not now recall---ching???) which was blown by the mouth and functioned more as a sort of pan pipe that is a primitive form of the western organ.

In the Phillipines; there was and is a very famous organ built almost entirely of Bamboo and there were some less famous ones---the Las Piñas Organ.(which I think that you must have confused with Japan) The Bamboo Organ is a National Treasure of the Philipines and the World at large. Work on this Organ began in 1816 but it's trumpets (Spanish organs are famous and notable for their reeds) were not installed until much later and it has survived just about everything that has destroyed other Organs in the West. The famous t Las Piñas Organ is still in existence and was fully restored after nearly 200 years of use during the 1973 period according to the firm Gebruder Klais, of Bonn, Germany, who did the restoration work. The Klais firm went to extra-ordinary measures to restore this Organ including building a special room to house it in their studios which was taken down and ship to Bonn.

Just in case you have never heard of the Klais firm; let's just say that they are the first rate sucessors to Schnitger and Silberman although they are their own great Masters in organ building in every right. They are THE firm that you would want to build your organ or restore it whether it be 300 ranks or 1 rank intrument anywhere in the world and indeed have Organs in Japan, the United States as well as Europe and other places in the world. Their instruments not only look good but also sound good and are based on the same principals of organ building that were in effect in Bach's day with some concessions to modern technology including computer chips for memory banks.

The Klais firm is a family run firm. Hans took over from his father and I have been told that Philippm the great grandson of the founder, is now running the show.

The Organ, as we know it in the West, came to Japan through Christianity at the TUC <Tokyo Union Church> Church in 1916. This church took a very long time to construct and when they finished it; they had just enough money to either hire a minister or build a pipe organ. The congregation chose to build an Organ and it was not until 1930 that they were able to hire a minister. I have not been able to find records of an earlier organ although their may have been( probally introduced by the Catholics) but we must remember that before Perry; Japan was a very closed feudal society controled by the Emperor and the local shoguns which took the stance that they did not need anything the West had to offer and since the Emperor was considered God; Christianity conflicted with Japanese culture in that Japanese Christians were forbidden under Christian canons to worship the Emperor or any other gods found in the Japanese pantheon of gods.

Boyd Pehrson wrote (December 13, 2002):
[To Ludwig] In reply to your post, I shall refer you to music scholar Eta Harich-Schneider's work "A History of Japanese Music" (London: Oxford University Press, 1973).

You wrote:
"Unless there is some record that I and others have not come across that you may know about (please educate us if this is the case); there were never any Western style organs built of bamboo in Japan in the early days of Christianity."

You also wrote:
"The Organ, as we know it in the West, came to Japan through Christianity at the TUC <Tokyo Union Church> Church in 1916. "

I assume you mean the early days of Christianity in Japan? The Jesuits of the 16th Century did bring organs to Japan at that time, and organs of bamboo were built in Japan along with all sorts of Baroque instruments of the time.

I quote Eta Harich-Schneider's work:
"In 1580 Father Organtino asked the General of the Society to send over to Japan architects, sculptors, painters, makers of musical instruments, and singers, to teach at the seminary of Azuchi and in Kyoto. During the first years of the 17th century the making of musical instruments was in full swing. The earliest Japanese-made European instruments were portable bamboo organs. (Such organs were also manufactured in the missions of Brazil, Peru, and Colombia.) "Under the guidance of a certain Father Nicolao they made organs and other musical instruments in Armia and Nagasaki during the years 1601-1602." "The Franciscan Juan de Santa Martha, a superior musician, also manufactured organs and other musical instruments."

"In 1613 the eightieth anniversary of the Society's foundation was celebrated in the Armia seminary. Cerqueria writes on this occasion: 'Among the organs and other instruments employed the ones manufactured in Japan are numerous.' After all, more than six decades had passed since the first Western instruments had entered Japan, and naturally the number of instruments made in Japan had greatly increased. Thus when persecution, fire, and destruction came, the memory of the instruments still lingered on. We do not know which other instruments besides organs had been manufactured; the Fathers, non-musicians, are vague in their information. But we know beyond doubt that the following instruments were introduced and played by Japanese musicians:
alaude- lute
arpa- harp
charamela- shawm
claves- keyboard instruments
flautas- flutes
liuto- lute, v.alaude
manicordio- clavicord
orgaos- organs
pifaro- fife, recorder
rabeca- violin
rabecao- contrabass
trompetas- trumpets
viola
viola da arco- viola da gamba
viola da braccio- arm-viol
viola semplice- probably also arm-viol"

Source: Harich-Schneider, Eta, A History of Japanese Music. 1973 Oxford Press, pgs. 474-475.

Also, you will want to read Ian Woodfield's brief treatment of the subject of the great popularity of European organs in Japan in the 17th century. It is found in the Sociology of Music no.8, "English Musicians in the Age of Exploration" (Woodfield, Ian. English Musicians in the Age of Exploration. Stuyvesant, N.Y. Pendragon Press, 1995 Sociology of music no. 8)

Ian Woodfield describes the interest in fine European organs in Japan in the 16th century. Woodfield writes:
"By the mid-sixteenth century, keyboard instruments had spread throughout the Portuguese Empire. Fine organs and harpsichords were as popular as ever as diplomatic gifts. The first such presentation in Japan, the Jewel in the crown of the Portuguese East, was made by Francis Xavier himself in 1551. ...Organs, harpsichords and clavichords are mentioned scores of times in the letters of Jesuit missionaries working in Japan during the 1560's and the 1570's, and keyboard playing soon became an integral part of the syllabus of Jesuit seminaries." (Ibid. p.184)

You also wrote:
"Forgive me but as someone who has a great deal of expertise on the Organ may I say that you have been misinformed or have confused the Philipines [sic]with Japan."

You now have even more information about the organ and its history in Japan. If you could, please tell us the source of your information that disputes these two scholars' works I have mentioned.


Mera’s diction

Juozas Rimas wrote (June 18, 2004):
What do experienced listeners, especially native speakers of German, think of Yoshikazu Mera's diction?

I'm now listening to his BWV 54 "Wiederstehe..." and I get an impression he is struggling a bit with the phrase "Sonst ergreifet dich ihr Gift". Justly speaking, it wasn't kind from Georg Christian Lehms, as far as euphony is concerned, to write a text for a wonderful cantata and include a phrase with a "ch" between two f's with two t's nearby. ("Sonst ergreiFeT diCH ihr GiFT"). Another similar consonant-ridden phrase is "Trifft ein Fluch, der tödlich ist"...

Anyway, I can't help but thinking Mera's slightly lisping when singing in German: I can hear slight hissing when he's pronouncing almost all consonants and it prevents me from enjoying his performances fully, because I do like the way he sings vowels - a very original voice.

Perhaps his consonants sound fine in Japanese?

Thomas Braatz wrote (June 18, 2004):
Juozas Rimas wrote: >>What do experienced listeners, especially native speakers of German, think of Yoshikazu Mera's diction?<<
He has problems with the language, but then who can sing German as perfectly as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Peter Schreier, Andreas Scholl, etc.?

>> I'm now listening to his BWV 54 "Wiederstehe..." and I get an impression he is struggling a bit with the phrase "Sonst ergreifet dich ihr Gift". Justly speaking, it wasn't kind from Georg Christian Lehms, as far as euphony is concerned, to write a text for a wonderful cantata and include a phrase with a "ch" between two f's with two t's nearby. ("Sonst ergreiFeT diCH ihr GiFT"). Another similar consonant-ridden phrase is "Trifft ein Fluch, der tödlich ist"... <<
The first example seems to be a bit of onomatopoeia on the part of Christian Lehms: these consonant sounds resemble the hissing of a snake or other ugly venomous reptile which symbolically is 'tempting mankind' with its poison…

Read Simon Heighes' description of this cantata in "The Oxford Composer Companions: J. S. Bach [Boyd, Oxford University Press, 1999] regarding Bach's use of deceptive cadences and the use of dominant 7th chords which are used to shake up the listener [Alfred Drr points this out in his book on the Bach cantatas Bärenreiter, 1971.]

>>Anyway, I can't help but thinking Mera's slightly lisping when singing in German: I can hear slight hissing when he's pronouncing almost all consonants and it prevents me from enjoying his performances fully, because I do like the way he sings vowels - a very original voice.
Perhaps his consonants sound fine in Japanese?<<
The 'slight hissing' by Mera may not be so far off the mark as far as the expression of the test is concerned. My only problem with Mera's voice, which I generally like, is that its range is limited (a small, beautiful demi-voix.) As Heighes points out: "The tessitura is particularly low for the alto voice, though the range is wide."

Bradley Lehman wrote (June 18, 2004):
Thomas Braatz wrote: < My only problem with Mera's voice, which I generally like, is that its range is limited (a small, beautiful demi-voix.) >
Can we PLEASE have some other terminology that doesn't imply the man is only "half" of something? [part of this message was removed]

Besides, EVERY singer's range is limited (so what?); and therefore it really says nothing positive about a singer to assert that his voice's "range is limited", except to bias the reader to focus on the extremes of his voice (as if that's all that matters in a singer's artistry: the ability to hit some quantity of different notes).

The terminology used to describe a person greatly biases the way a reader perceives things, and betrays the way the speaker thinks about things. The phrase "range is limited (a small, beautiful demi-voix)" was probably intended by its writer as a compliment, yet it comes across as a slam of the man's vocal equipment and therefore also (by implication) his ability to do his job. It also comes across as pity, and patronizingly: as if Mera is doing a very good job with what little he has to work with. Well, that's insulting!

I like Mera's singing, especially in a BIS album of Japanese folk songs. He has a beautiful voice and sings expressively.

Dale Gedcke wrote (June 21, 2004):
Thomas Braatz wrote: < My only problem with Mera's voice, which I generally like, is that its range is limited (a small, beautiful demi-voix.) >
And Brad Lehman commented: "Can we PLEASE have some other terminology that doesn't imply the man is only "half" of something?"

MY SUGGESTION:

Would "voix légère" (light voice; leichte Stimme) be a more apt and less derogatory description than "demi-voix"?

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (June 21, 2004):
[To Dale Gedcke] Sounds good to me :)

Bradley Lehman wrote (June 21, 2004):
[To Cara Emily Thornton] Sounds mostly reasonable to me, too. It's a positive focus on the timbre of the voice, instead of a negative focus on (in the opinion of some) an alleged incompleteness/incompetence/inadequacy. This is better.

But the danger with "light voice" (in any language) is that it too might still project the notion that the singer produces only "Bach lite" (again, some allegedly incomplete presentation of the music: missing the soulfulness or power or whatever). Therefore it can still, unless the speaker is very careful with it, betray a prejudice that the job isn't being done completely adequately, and come across as a slam. And that's, once again, the disguising of a listener's PREFERENCES with the pseudo-objective categorization of other people: it turns into an ad hominem argument that the musician is probably UNABLE to do any better, and that the musician therefore should not be taken seriously. The slapping of any kind of label onto a person right away diminishes the person. Prejudice is prejudice; it's the glib substitution of generalities for specifics, thereby diminishing the value of specifics.

Instead of trying to categorize singers at all, why don't we simply provide references and links to recordings where anyone can go listen directly, and decide personally if the results are pleasing? That, it seems to me, would be a fairer sort of criticism than the assignment of labels is.

Cara Emily Thornton wrote (June 21, 2004):
Bradley Lehman wrote: < Instead of trying to categorize singers at all, why don't we simply provide references and links to recordings where anyone can go listen directly, and decide personally if the results are pleasing? That, it seems to me, would be a fairer sort of criticism than the assignment of labels is. >
Yeah, it's true - just about any label we apply could have some kind of negative overtones to someone or other's mind...

Bradley Lehman wrote (June 21, 2004):
[To Cara Emily Thornton] Yep, like this example (constructed here for demonstration): "She's just a soubrette, we might as well not even let her audition for that leading role...." Even if the speaker intended "soubrette" as a compliment on previous work, it dismisses the singer as allegedly no better than that, with no aspirations or abilities to sing something else, or even to HAVE a wide expressive or dramatic range as an interpreter. Type-casting to exclude the unwanted.

Thomas Braatz wrote (June 22, 2004):
Thomas Braatz wrote: >>My only problem with Mera's voice, which I generally like, is that its range is limited (a small, beautiful demi-voix.)<<
And Brad Lehman commented: "Can we PLEASE have some other terminology that doesn't imply the man is only "half" of something?"<<
Dale Gedcke wrote: >>MY SUGGESTION: Would "voix légère" (light voice; leichte Stimme) be a more apt and less derogatory description than "demi-voix"?<<
It would not be 'more apt' since in musical terminology there are already terms like 'light voice' which have a special meaning (translating 'light' into French would only cause more confusion and misunderstanding.)

Problem #1:

'light voices' can be those that are incapable of singing with full vocal power at all, whether this is due to nature of the voice to begin with (by birth), or whether it comes as a result of vocal training which can not take the voice 'beyond a certain point'
dictated by nature or simply the lack of daily practice.

Problem #2:

'light voices' can, under certain conditions be transformed into 'fuller' voices (usually with training and experience.) Some great singers have started out on their careers with a 'light voice' but later became famous when the voice took on greater stature.

Problem #3:

'light voices' that have been properly and successfully trained, particularly those in the soprano and tenor categories, can achieve operatic (or operetta) careers (they can definitely be heard over a large orchestra, but they still may have a limited low range (there are usually very few exceptions to this rule.)

Problem #4:

'full voices' can masquerade as 'light voices' at will by singing 'sotto voce' so as to spare the voice (opera rehearsals, etc.,) but 'full voices usually have a much larger range than 'light voices.'

The phrase/term 'light voice' or 'voix légère' has an established meaningall of its own. It is important for communication in language to maintain established meanings and not confuse older terms with new terms which carry a specific meaning that can/should not easily be confused with already existing terminology.

'Half voices' ('demi voix', 'Halbstimmen') may sometimes sing with a reasonably strong voice in the 'good part'(usually higher part) of the vocal range, but generally they tend to 'even things out' by singing in a 'sotto voce' style throughout a Bach aria or recitative. The lower part of their vocal range tends to be quite weak indeed and is often covered up by the instruments that accompany the voice. As a result Bach's music suffers and does not get a fair hearing. Whatever such a 'half voice' gains in flexibility by singing lighter and with less volume, it begins to lose in the area of full expression of the music and text since the voice is operating at a deficit of power to begin with unlike the 'full voice' that intentionally sings 'sotto voce' for special effect only under certain conditions. The 'half voice' may lose 'steam' or power precisely at that point in an aria or recitative where Bach is trying to underline in music an emotion that arises from the text.

I would welcome any suggestion which would/could meaningfully replace the term that I was forced to come up with to describe what I continually keep hearing in the cantata recordings, especially in HIP recordings. There are 'half voices' among the singers in both the non-HIP and HIP categories of recordings, but generally the number of 'half voices' seems to be greater among the HIP singers.

Some 'tidbits' from the New Grove [Oxford University Press, 2004]:
>>Brémond, François, (b Nîmes, 1 Nov 1844; d Houilles, nr Paris, 15 July 1925). French horn player, tenor and teacher. He also possessed a light tenor voice. [Jeffry L. Snedeker]<<

>>"Light soprano" (Fr. soprano léger; It. soprano leggiero). Typical roles for the light soprano are Despina, Susanna, Norina and Nannetta, as well as Sophie (both Der Rosenkavalier and Werther). The lightness in volume of such a voice is usually matched by a brightly produced, freely carrying tone, which in the Italian and French schools tends to be of a more sharply edged, forward quality than with the Germans or British. The term Soubrette is sometimes used in connection with such roles and voices; its original meaning of `coy' or `shrewd' and its later use, as a noun, to denote a lady's maid suggest the character of the roles assigned to the soubrette in opera. Light sopranos admired in the 20th century have included Elisabeth Schumann and the Americans Kathleen Battle and Barbara Hendricks. Many sopranos, such as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Mirella Freni, have begun their career in this category and have developed into singers of the lyric or lyric-dramatic type. [J. B. Steane]<<

>>Lemière [Larrivée, L'Arrivée], Marie-Jeanne (b Sedan, 29 Nov 1733; d Paris, Oct 1786). French soprano. Hers was an agile, light voice of precision and beauty suited more to florid ariettes than to declamatory or passionate roles.[Philip Weller]<<

>>Most frequently coloratura singers are those with high, light voices since these are the most readily flexible type. ...coloratura sopranos with light voices such as Toti dal Monte and Lily Pons.[J.B. Steane, Owen Jander]<<

>>The lyric, coloratura tenor specializing in `bel canto' singing.John Aler, who has a clear and light voice, used to good effect in earlier music. Among other singers suited to the needs of the early music movement, with use of head voice at the top of the range, is Anthony Rolfe Johnson.[Elizabeth Forbes, Owen Jander, J.B. Steane/Ellen T. Harris (with Gerald Waldman)]<<

>>Printemps [Wigniolle], Yvonne (b Ermont, Seine-et-Oise, 25 July 1894; d Neuilly, nr Paris, 18 Jan 1977). French soprano. Her recordings of song and operetta reveal a light voice. [J.B. Steane]<<

>>Anneliese Rothenberger b Mannheim, 19 June 1924). German soprano had unusual acting ability and a well-schooled, if light, voice. [Harold Rosenthal]<<

>>Blossom Dearie has a small, light voice, sometimes employing a thin, tight vibrato [Ed Bemis]<<

>>'Sotto voce': It is particularly used in the word `sottovoce' (`an undertone') or in the less orthodox and particularly musical orthography 'sotto voce,' a direction indicating that a passage is to be performed in an undertone. Rousseau ('Dictionnaire de musique,' 1768), in one of his more obscure definitions, equated 'sotto voce' with 'mezzo-forte' and 'mezza voce.' 'Sotto voce' was used originally in connection with vocal music, but was equally applied, by analogy, to instrumental performance. As such it is often found in Haydn and Mozart; and Beethoven used it in his quartets in the slow movements of opp.130, 132 and 135, and also at the opening of op.74. In many similar contexts he used 'mezza voce.' Used in string music, 'sotto voce' is often a specific direction to play nearer the fingerboard where the sound is gentler.[Eric Blom/David Fallows]<<

Gabriel Jackson wrote (June 22, 2004):
Thomas Braatz wrote: "I would welcome any suggestion which would/could meaningfully replace the term that I was forced to come up with to describe what I continually keep hearing in the cantata recordings, especially in HIP recordings. There are 'half voices' among the singers in both the non-HIP and HIP categories of recordings, but generally the number of 'half voices' seems to be greater among the HIP singers."
What about just "voice"! (Or "voice that Thomas Braatz doesn't like"...for that is what we're talking about.) I don't understand the need to put a label on everything? All this talk of half-voice implies that something is lacking. You may not like the voices you describe thus, but that is down to your personal taste.

Charles Francis wrote (June 22, 2004):
[To Gabriel Jackson] For me the cup is half full, rather than half empty, and with good microphone placement, imbalance can be compensated.

Ken Edmonds wrote (June 22, 2004):
'light voices' (was Mera's diction)

[To Thomas Braatz] Can you give us real-life examples of the problems you describe below? Your e-mail if full of generalities, but no actual examples of vocalists who suffer from these problems. I would like to know a) who has a light voice because they do not practice enough, or b)who became famous after they developed a full voice, or c) who has a limited lower register due to their light voice, or d)who does not convincingly sing a Bach aria due to their light voice.

Thank you,

Continue of this part of the discussion, see: Light Voices [General Topics]

Bradley Lehman wrote (June 22, 2004):
Gabriel Jackson wrote: << What about just "voice"! (Or "voice that Thomas Braatz doesn't like"...for that is what we're talking about.) I don't understand the need to put a label on everything? All this talk of half-voice implies that something is lacking. You may not like the voices you describe thus, but that is down to your personal taste. >>
Charles Francis responded: < For me the cup is half full, rather than half empty, and with good microphone placement, imbalance can be compensated. >
Personally, as an optimist, I prefer to assume that professional musicians are fully qualified to do their appointed tasks, and not clandestinely "compensating" for "imbalances". The professional singers I've accompanied (and some good amateurs, too) haven't had any trouble projecting their voices into the rooms where we perform, with no microphones anywhere; so, why assume that anything too artificial is happening in recordings either?

I believe we should respect the dedication, talent, investment, and hard work that go into making recordings at all, and stop labelling musicians as inadequate citizens. And, I'm thankful for the recording technology and publishing companies that allow me to hear fine singers such as Yoshikazu Mera at all, living halfway around the world fhim.

Thomas Braatz wrote (June 22, 2004):
Ken Edmonds wrote: >>Can you give us real-life examples of the problems you describe below?<<
If all the cantata recordings were available on the internet and if you were able to follow along with the score, I could easily provide the links without having to mention the name of the artists, the latter action which is still being criticized by certain list members who desire:

1) no labels, unless they are completely 'bland' or 'general,' may be used, hence no distinction between good and bad performances (in the minds of some, there are only good performances of Bach always and everywhere; the 'bad' ones are simply not mentioned or perhaps only in passing very generally)

2) any voice can sing just about any range anywhere at any time, it is impossible to assign a label (specific voice category) to any current singer since they tend, for the most part, to be 'vocal chameleons'

3) terminology must be PC so that the distinctions are blurred - the good performances by good musical artists comingle with the bad. There are rarely, if ever, any 'bad' performances, they may simply sound 'different' but that in itself does not warrant a label being assigned such as 'good,' 'bad,' 'black,' 'small,' 'large,' etc. etc. (Who, in his or her right mind, would want to be classified as a 'black'['schwarzer'] bass while not being 'Afro-American' or a 'soubrette' which would restrict the type of singing roles he/she might wish to obtain?

4) recent performances and recordings have a better chance at being praised than old recordings which generally represent a time when musicians were still 'operating under a cloud' caused by out-moded, out-dated conceptions of what Bach's music should sound like. Current recordings/performances can only be judged (if they are judged at all) by those who demonstrate the necessary competence and qualifications to do so.

>>Your e-mail if full of generalities, but no actual examples of vocalists who suffer from these problems.<<
This comes as a result of the above-stated reason, but since this thread began with Mera's Bach recordings, some of which I find to be better (despite the diction problems) than the performances of the singer who replaced Mera, I suggest that you attempt to purchase just one of his recordings like the one under discussion to hear 'what all the fuss is about.'

You can always check out Aryeh's Bach Cantatas Site and do a search there. I also cited some examples at the end of my last message.

'Light voice' is a misnomer for what I have been trying to describe all along and I will not use this term for the numerous reasons that I have already given. A 'light voice' is not necessarily a 'small voice.' There are 'light voices' that can be quite penetrating in their limited range, there are also 'operetta'-type singers who have sung/recorded some of Bach's arias and recitatives, but, in my estimation, not very successfully.

Johan van Veen wrote (June 22, 2004):
Thomas Braatz wrote: < It would not be 'more apt' since in musical terminology there are already terms like 'light voice' which have a special meaning (translating 'light' into French would only cause more confusion and misunderstanding.)
The phrase/term 'light voice' or 'voix l
égère' has an established meaning all of its own. It is important for communication in language to maintain established meanings and not confuse older terms with new terms which carry a specific meaning that can/should not easily be confused with already existing terminology. >
I tend to agree with this: if the term is already used for a specific type of voice, it would be confusing to use this term to describe another kind of voice.

But instead of looking for another term, I would prefer to avoid this kind of terms altogether. The terms used to describe a certain type of voice date - as far as I know - from the 19th and 20th centuries and are associated with certain types of music. But this kind of distinctions didn't exist in the pre-romantic era, and is therefore hardly suitable to be applied to singers who concentrate on repertoire from this period.


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