Feng Yi Ting melds traditional forms to create new opera

Updated: 2012-07-28 02:46

By Cong Yan in New York (chinadaily.com.cn)

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Feng Yi Ting melds traditional forms to create new opera

Opera singers Shen Tiemei and Jiang Qihu perform in a dress rehearsal of Feng Yi Ting on Wednesday at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater in New York. [Photo by Cong Yan for China Daily] 

When Sichuan Opera singer Shen Tiemei was in Charleston, South Carolina, two months ago performing in Feng Yi Ting, the production was so popular that passersby recognized her offstage.

"An older American couple came up to me while I was having dinner in downtown Charleston and said they were so impressed by Feng Yi Ting that they saw it twice," Shen recalled.

She told China Daily it was rewarding to see US audiences absorbing Chinese culture through this East-meets-West opera.

Based on a folk tale, Feng Yi Ting (The Phoenix Pavilion) tells the story of Diao Chan, a beautiful young girl who saves her kingdom, Han, through her wiles and seductive power over two warlords — the tyrannical general Dong Zhuo and his godson Lu Bu, both of whom are deemed threats to Han. After managing to have both men fall for her, Diao stirs up jealousy and anger in Lu, setting in motion events that lead to the killing of his godfather.

Feng Yi Ting received positive reviews during its five-show run at Charleston's Spoleto Festival USA, established in 1977 by famed composer Gian Carlo Menotti as a counterpart to a long-established summer festival of opera and musical theater in Spoleto, Italy.

"The music came across with eerie sorts of beauty and emotional impact that both pleased my ears and stirred my soul," Lindsay Koob wrote in the weekly Charleston City Paper in a review of a performance of the opera at a local church during Spoleto USA.

Feng Yi Ting is now in New York City as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. It premiered Thursday night and will be performed Friday and Saturday night at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater on the campus of John Jay College in Manhattan.

This 40-minute production of Feng Yi Ting sprang from a three-minute program Chinese composer Guo Wenjing wrote for Shen in 2003. In Guo's opinion, Shen's voice has a "texture" that is rare among sopranos.

"She's an excellent artist, and the only person for Diao Chan in this show. I'll give her my highest compliment," said Guo, who is known as a pioneer in brining Chinese elements to his operatic works.

"Feng Yi Ting is the only opera that Guo wrote that includes Beijing opera and Sichuan opera. I thought it would be an amazing opportunity to introduce traditional Chinese opera forms to a Western audience," said producer Sarina Tang, who asked Guo to join the US production.

Atom Egoyan, the Canadian movie and theater director, joined the creative team at Tang's invitation. "It's important to get a Western director for this show so that it will make the music and the opera accessible to the audience in the US," Tang said.

English-language titles of the characters' lines are projected onto the stage to help the non-Chinese-speaking audience follow the action. The design and movement of the text serves to convey the internal feelings of the opera's main players.

The international production team is also careful with stage design and the characters' presentation, ensuring that the plot is understandable, Shen explained.

"It's like we are patiently telling a story with our performance onstage, and it really worked," she said.

At several points in the opera, the Spoleto audience in Charleston reacted with the occasional "wow" and other audible appreciations.

Tang is confident that Feng Yi Ting breaks new ground aesthetically. "This is the first time we have a contemporary opera combining two traditional Chinese opera forms and are presenting it in a way a Western audience can really appreciate," she said.