Oppenheimer Noh Project


Allan Marett (Emeritus Professor, University of Sydney)

The Oppenheimer Noh Project focused on the creation and performance of a new English-language Noh play, Oppenheimer, that was performed in the Music Workshop Theatre on Wednesday 30 September and Thursday 1 October 2015. The project included a public workshop and public lecture and is a key event in two conferences: Wounds, Scars and Healing: Civil Society and Postwar Pacific Basic Reconciliation and Musical Dialogues: the 38th National Conference of the Musicological Society of Australia. It was a collaboration between Emeritus Professor Allan Marett (SCM), Professor Richard Emmert (Musashino University, Tokyo) and master actor-teacher of the Kita School of Japanese classical Noh theatre, Akira Matsui. The principal performers include both Japanese professionals and Japanese-trained members of the Theatre Nohgaku, whose mission is ‘is to share Noh’s beauty and power with English speaking audiences and performers.’

Proudly supported by the Japan Foundation

Please click here to watch the full video of the performance with English and Japanese subtitles.

Performance Information 

Wednesday 30 September, 6pm, Music Workshop
Thursday 1 October, 6pm, Music Workshop

Read Allan’s blog about the project here – blogs.usyd.edu.au/oppenheimer-noh/

Robert OppenheimerThe play

Oppenheimer is a modern Noh play in English about the American scientist, J Robert Oppenheimer, and the development of the atomic bomb, which was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. It explores issues of guilt, atonement and redemption, but within a Buddhist rather than a Judeo-Christian framework. Here tensions between insight and responsibility/karma are explored through the Zen story of Hyakujo and the fox and themes of liberation/redemption are framed by the actions of the fearsome Buddhist Wisdom King, Fudô Myô-ô and thewheel of samsara (endless birth and death).

Oppenheimer has the structure and form of a traditionalmugen Noh, where the main character is the ghost of a person who, because of some karmic hindrance, is unable to leave their human form at death. In many cases, the action of a mugen Noh play will free the ghost from the wheel ofsamsara, so that they can attain liberation. In this play, the ghost is that of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who, tormented by the horrible consequences of his action in fathering the atomic bomb, is condemned to return each year to Hiroshima to himself suffer the agonies that his weapon caused. Through a contemplation of the traditional Zen story of Hyakujo and the fox (Mumonkan, Case 2), the ghost of Oppenheimer is finally released from his suffering when he encounters Fudô Myô-ô within the fires of Hiroshima. Fudô gives Oppenheimer his sword and snare, so that he can dance for the liberation of all beings from suffering, and in particular the wounds and scars that we all bear as a result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.


In 1989 and 1991, Allan Marett (author), Richard Emmert (composer) and Matsui Akira (director) collaborated to produce Eliza, one of the earliest examples of English Noh, in Sydney and Tokyo. A video of Eliza is available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bJHepiF_Hc. This, together with a number of other English Noh projects, led to the formation, in 2000, of the professional Japanese-American company, Theatre Nohgaku,whose mission is to increase appreciation of Noh outside Japan through the performance of traditional Noh plays in English and the creation of new Noh in English. Since then, Theatre Nohgaku has gone from strength to strength. As part of its remit to develop new English Noh works, from 2003 Theatre Nohgaku has been holding annual workshops for writers; it is through these workshops that the new English Noh play Oppenheimer has been developed. The same creative team of Marett, Emmert and Matsui are again collaborating on the creation and production of Oppenheimer.

Read Allan Marett’s blog about the project for more information.


ALLAN MARETT is an academic, writer and teacher. For almost 30 years (from 1978 until 2007), he taught (ethno-) musicology at the University of Sydney, specialising in Japanese music (in particular gagaku and noh) and Australian Aboriginal music, in particular the genre known as wangga. During that time he collaborated with Emmert and Matsui on two major Noh projects, the second of which led to creation and performance of Eliza, a Noh play that focused on the Eliza Fraser story and reflected on issues that included the position of Aboriginal song and ceremony in Australian cultural life, and changing attitudes to the environment. Marett has published several books and many articles on Australian Aboriginal music and the history and analysis of gagaku. Marett held the position of Professor of Musicology at the University of Sydney and Professor of Music at the University of Hong Kong. He was a Vice President of the International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM) and President of the Australian Musicological Society. Marett has also practiced Zen Buddhism for more than 40 years and currently teaches at the Sydney Zen Centre.

RICHARD EMMERT has been studying, teaching and performing classical Noh drama in Japan since 1973. He is a certified Kita school Noh instructor, and has studied all aspects of Noh performances with a special concentration in movement and music. A professor of Musashino University in Tokyo, he directs an on-going Noh Training Project in Tokyo as well as summer NTP programs in the States and in the UK. He has co-authored a series of Noh performance guides published by the National Noh Theatre (NNT) in Tokyo and is presently completing another series for the NNT. He has also led extended Noh performance projects in Australia, India, Hong Kong, the UK, the US and Canada, including two previous projects at the University of Sydney. In 2014, he led a week-long workshop at NIDA and also conducted a lecture-demonstration at the Art Gallery New South Wales in connection with the Noh exhibition held there. He has composed, directed, and performed in eight English Noh performances, and has released a CD entitled Noh in English by the Japanese Teichiku Records. He has also performed and directed several Asian multi-cultural performances including Siddhartha by Teater Cahaya in Kuala Lumpur in 2003. He is the founder and artistic director of Theatre Nohgaku, a company dedicated to performing Noh in English, and has led performance tours in several countries.

AKIRA MATSUI is a master actor-teacher of the Kita School of Japanese classical Noh theatre. He was born in 1946 in Wakayama, south of Osaka and began studying Noh at the age of seven. He showed such talent that, at age 12, he became a “live-in apprentice” to Kita Minoru, the 15th generation of Noh masters of the Kita School (one of the five guilds of shite main role actors). Matsui mastered Noh dance and chant, then returned to his hometown at age 20 where he has since been based though performing and teaching throughout Japan. Matsui has also been active for nearly 25 years in disseminating Noh abroad. He has trained student actors in Noh in numerous foreign countries including India, Australia, Germany, England, and has offered master classes at colleges and theatres across the U.S. and Canada. “I enjoy bringing noh abroad; it helps me to see Noh’s strengths and weaknesses,” he remarked recently. From his firm foundation in tradition, Matsui has experimented in intercultural fusions. In Kyoto, he has acted in NOHO Theatre Group productions of plays by Shakespeare, W.B. Yeats, and Beckett, and has written plays based on Rashoman and Hoichi. Together with American noh composer-performer Richard Emmert, he has created a series of “English Noh” including St. Francis, At the Hawk’s Well, and Eliza. In addition, he has choreographed Noh-style dances to jazz ballads and to poetry by T.S. Eliot. He has also choreographed, co-directed, and acted in bilingual productions at American colleges and European theaters, utilizing Noh spirit and technique. In 1998, he was designated an Important Intangible Cultural Asset by the Japanese government.

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