'Western' Chinese opera previews

Updated: 2013-12-05 11:44

By Kelly Chung Dawson in New York (China Daily USA)

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'Western' Chinese opera previews

Chinese composer Huang Ruo joined members of the Santa Fe Opera at New York's Asia Society Monday night in a panel discussion and preview of the upcoming American premiere of his opera Dr Sun Yat-Sen, which will open next summer in Santa Fe.

Commissioned by Opera Hong Kong and premiered in Hong Kong in 2011, the three-act Western-style opera showcases the history of a man who is widely regarded as the "Father of the Nation" for his part in overthrowing the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and founding the Republic of China in 1911.

"Huang Ruo is one of the most gifted and imaginative composers writing today," general director of the Santa Fe Opera Charles MacKay said in an official statement. "The Santa Fe Opera is honored to present his first opera to the American public. His music is exotic, with a lovely lyrical quality, which makes it very approachable for the voice. It is very moving and beautiful."

Huang, who was born in China and educated at Oberlin Conservatory and Juilliard School, has had his compositions performed by the New York Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra and others.

"One of the things I find really exciting about this opera is that it's the joining of two currents that have developed in the last 25 years," said journalist and expert in Chinese opera Ken Smith, who moderated the panel discussion. "First, the Western idea of taking historic figures sometimes directly from headlines and turning them into mythic archetypes, beginning with Nixon in China and continuing through the production about Anna Nicole at BAM earlier this year. Additionally, what has happened in China is the growth of contemporary operas composed by Chinese composers."

Although Chinese opera has traditionally been associated with the art of Peking Opera, the growing tradition of contemporary opera with Western influences produced by Chinese composers is gaining a foothold, Smith said.

The opera, which was originally slated to premiere in Beijing in 2011 but faced a government cancellation in the weeks before opening , will see its US premiere under director James Robinson, with scenic designer Allen Moyer and costume designer James Schuette; all participated in the discussion at the Asia Society. Also there were the production's choreographer Sean Curran and conductor Carolyn Kuan.

The Asia Society previously presented excerpts of the opera in a performance that was key to hooking the Santa Fe Opera's interest in the production, MacKay said.

Although Chinese composers have successfully written operas for US audiences, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen is unique for its use of the Chinese language, Smith said.

"Chinese is a very tonal language," Huang said of writing in Chinese. "But it's not necessarily easy to set to music because each word is an individual character. Over many years studying Chinese opera and singing, my conclusion has been that the real beauty in Chinese singing is not the ending of a story but the beauty found in between words. That's where the essence of the music is, in traveling from one character to the next."

As a result, Chinese singing often features ornamentation, drawing out the sounds of each character, he said.

"It's fascinating as conductor, because I couldn't imagine this opera being in English," Kuan said.



(China Daily USA 12/05/2013 page2)