Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa beats cancer, plans opera

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 August, 2014, 9:56pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 August, 2014, 8:33am

Japan's Seiji Ozawa, one of the best-known conductors of his generation, said yesterday he had recovered from health problems including cancer and that his plans for the future included conducting an opera next year.

Ozawa, 78, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in January 2010, underwent lower back surgery a year later and suffered multiple bouts of pneumonia, which kept him mostly sidelined until mid-2013.

He then made a triumphant return by directing an opera at the Saito Kinen Festival, a music extravaganza that he founded 23 years ago in the Japanese city of Matsumoto. Yesterday, Ozawa welcomed the announcement that the festival would be renamed the Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival.

"I'm really grateful," he said, contrasting the gesture to having a rehearsal hall named for him in the United States in 1994, when the idea struck him as being "a little bit like a tombstone".

"That somebody like me, who has suffered a major illness and underwent surgery, can speak casually about death is proof that I've really recovered," he said. "Either that, or I'm really dumb - but please think of me as being recovered and active."

Ozawa, a former conductor at the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Vienna State Opera, will direct a concert at the Matsumoto festival this summer and an opera, Beatrice and Benedict by Hector Berlioz, next year.

But he said changing the festival's name did not signal other changes, such as his retirement.

"That kind of thing is a trade secret," he said, to laughter. "The truth is that I have always been thinking of who might take over from me even from the time I began the festival years ago."

Known for throwing his whole body into conducting, Ozawa drew mixed reviews from critics for his dramatic style, once injuring himself during a concert.

But his style charmed audiences, especially in the US, where he spent nearly three decades as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Born in Manchuria in 1935, Ozawa first gained global attention by winning a competition in France and was later mentored by greats such as Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein.

Ozawa played down his success. "I'm the complete opposite of a genius, I have always had to make effort. Until I fell ill I'd get up early and study for several hours every day."