Sunday, October 16, 2016

Birth Of An Asian....Opera

Pipelines keep showing up in the news. Whether one reads about the school-to-prison pipeline, the North Dakota access pipeline, or a recently burst pipeline that is leaking toxic wet coal ash into a town's water supply, the news is often shocking and demoralizing. Don't believe me? Then you need to read Tom Philpott's article in Mother Jones entitled Hurricane Matthew Killed Millions of Farm Animals in North Carolina (it also likely caused massive amounts of toxic hog poop to flow into rivers and streams) so you can understand how the recent flooding pushed tons of fecal waste into local irrigation systems.


Given a choice, I prefer to concentrate on pipelines with positive outcomes. How can you tell the difference between a good pipeline and a bad pipeline? Just remember this critical moment from 1939's hit film, The Wizard of Oz.


Founded in 1998, the National New Play Network (NNPN) now has programs devoted to annual commissions, playwrights in residence, producers in residence, and an international exchange.
From its inception in 1970, OPERA America has grown from a professional networking organization for American opera companies to an international resource that helps artists and arts organizations increase their creativity and the overall quality of their productions as well as providing its members with "professional tools to maximize the effectiveness of financial and human resources." Throughout the years, the organization has facilitated international co-productions, helped to devise curricula for educational outreach programs, and developed ways to help members strengthen their ties to the community, develop new audiences, and increase the public's appreciation of the operatic art form.

After many years in Washington, D.C., OPERA America relocated its offices to New York. In 2012, the organization unveiled the National Opera Center. In 2014, it helped the financially-stricken San Diego Opera navigate a crisis in a way that prevented the company from going under.


New technologies ranging from social media to teleconferencing, from online ticket sales to the streaming of live events have revolutionized a 400-year-old art form that can occasionally seem mired in tradition. With the advent of the Internet, the Metropolitan Opera is no longer the only industry voice with a microphone. Whereas the Metropolitan Opera Guild's house organ, Opera News magazine, was once the dominant source of operatic news available to American audiences, OPERA America's expansive collection of videos on its YouTube channel includes sessions from its opera conferences for professionals, its Creators in Concert series, an Emerging Artist Recital Series, and the popular Conversations with Artists hosted by Marc Scorca (the organization's Executive Director for more than 25 years).


For the past half century, the most likely places in America to attend an operatic world premiere would have been at the following four companies:

With stronger bonds between academia, the professional opera world, and the general public, there is now a much larger community at hand to help support the birth of new operas. Bay area audiences recently witnessed two new works at opposite ends of the creative pipeline. In one situation, an operatic workshop gave a sense of a new work's potential while, in the other, a full-blown production received its world premiere from one of America's leading opera companies.

* * * * * * * * *
Under the leadership of its General Director, Sara Nealy, and musical director, Michael Morgan, Festival Opera is in the process of preparing a new opera by Chinese-born American composer-librettist Wang Jie for its world premiere late in 2017. Entitled Rated R for Rat, this new work deals with a collection of gods (represented as the characters in the Chinese Zodiac) and a population of demoralized humans struggling to cope with the mountains of waste they have created.

Poster art for Rated R for Rat

In collaboration with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and a renowned incubator of contemporary works (American Opera Projects), Festival Opera held a 90-minute workshop in which three scenes were prepared and sung by young artists. The cast featured bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum (a recent graduate of the San Francisco Opera's Merola Program and a current graduate student at the Juilliard School) in the title role and Ricardo Garcia as the Rooster. Two voice students from the Conservatory filled out the ensemble, with soprano Alexandra Gilliam cast as the Lark and mezzo-soprano Jasmine Johnson as a peasant woman. Working with the singers was stage director Mo Zhou, who had recently provided the composer with a valuable insight.

Director Mo Zhou and composer Wang Jie (Photo by: Mike Kirwan)

Rated R for Rat is designed as an expansion of Jie's previous chamber opera, From the Other Sky. Now conceived as an "eco-opera," it applies the laws of supply and demand toward the future of the human race as well as the fate of the gods.


The opera is set in the near future, when humans are so depressed and malnourished that, as they struggle to breathe through heavy smog and make their way through mountains of industrial waste, they must also deal with a horrible plague. As a result, birth rates have dropped precipitously (which bodes ill for Rat's business).

Composer Wang Jie

Just as Wagner's gods in Der Ring des Nibelungen cannot retain their youth without Freia's apples, the gods in Rated R for Rat need earthlings to supply them with human placentas in order for the gods to survive. When Rat sends the Lark (who is the 13th Zodiac Goddess) down to Earth to learn why humans are nearing extinction, the Lark witnesses the human misery, experiences compassion, and discovers that the combination of her divine voice and the soulful music of the doomed humans might offer the key to keeping both sets of creatures alive.

The cast and creative team during the talkback held at the
San Francisco Conservatory of Music (Photo by: Mike Kirwan)

During the talkback which followed the musical part of the workshop, Wang Jie explained how she came up with the idea of having the soprano portraying the Lark alternate between singing (when she is talking to the gods) and whistling (when she is trying to communicate with humans. One rarely hears a soprano give a shout-out to her grandfather for teaching her how to whistle!

Thanks to an Art Works award from the National Endowment for the Arts, the workshop was able to be livestreamed. You can watch the event in its entirety in the following video clip (be sure to click the "X" to unmute the sound).


* * * * * * * * *
In 2008, the San Francisco Opera presented the world premiere of The Bonesetter's Daughter. With music composed by Stewart Wallace (who had worked with David Gockley on the world premieres of 1989's Where's Dick? and 1995's Harvey Milk at the Houston Grand Opera) and a libretto by Amy Tan (who wrote the novel upon which the opera was based), the production achieved several goals that were more practical than aesthetic.

In looking for a followup-project, Gockley turned his focus to Cao Xueqin's classical novel, Dream of the Red Chamber. After pulling together a creative team that included composer Bright Sheng, playwright David Henry Hwang, director Stan Lai, designer Tim Yip, and choreographer Fang-Yi Sheu, plans were solidified to co-produce the new opera with the Hong Kong Arts Festival.


Because Bright Sheng is the Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, it was easy for him to use some of the students in his music department for a workshop of this new opera.


While some people worried about whether or not Sheng's opera would do justice to the legacy of Cao Xueqin's immensely popular 18th-century novel, that was of little concern to me. When Winnie Holzman adapted Gregory Maguire's novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, for the libretto to Stephen Schwartz's popular musical (Wicked), entire subplots were dropped from the narrative. Wagner spread his tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen, over four operas containing 19 hours of music. Imagine trying to squeeze a tale as complex as the Bhagavad Gita, Mahabharata, Odyssey, Iliad, or Aeneid into a 2-1/2 hour stage presentation!


I was much more interested to see what the creative team would deliver from the perspectives of music, stagecraft, and design. Tim Yip's costume designs were often breathtaking to behold.

Princess Jia (Karen Chia-ling Ho), Granny Jia (Qiulin Zhang) and
Lady Wang (Hyona Kim) in a scene from Bright Sheng's
Dream of the Red Chamber (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Irene Roberts as Bao Chai in Bright Sheng's new opera,
Dream of the Red Chamber (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Yip's scenic design employed a series of layered drops which could be adjusted to suggest different locales (in some cases, the blue-lit cyclorama visible between painted elements of the drops could be adjusted to suggest a river running through a village).

A scene from Bright Sheng's new opera,
Dream of the Red Chamber (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

A scene from Bright Sheng's new opera,
Dream of the Red Chamber (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Guiding the audience through the narrative is a Monk/Dreamer (Randall Nakano), who tries to explain how, after being left behind during the construction of Heaven, Stone and Flower sought to fulfill their love by traveling through a magic mirror to Earth and attempting to live as mortals. Following their journey, Flower became Dai Yu (Pureum Jo), a frail young woman who arrived in the home of the Jia clan (one of the Dynasty's wealthiest families).

Stone became the male hair to the Jia clan, Bao Yu (Yijie Shi), a spoiled rake born with a piece of jade in his mouth. After Bao Yu's older sister was elevated to the rank of Princess Jia (Karen Chia-ling Ho), Dai Yu and Bao Yu fell in love. Although they felt like soul mates,, complications soon arose. While Granny Jia (Qiulin Zhang) encouraged Bao Yu to marry his true love (Dai Yu), Lady Wang (Hyona Kim), was busily scheming for him to marry Bao Chai (Irene Roberts), instead. That way the Xue family's wealth could help to erase the Jia clan's debt to the Imperial Court.


While the first act of Sheng's opera may be heavy with musical and narrative exposition, the shorter second act is lush with romantic music which is easily accessible to Western audiences. Curiously, the men's voices are limited to the tenor range, which makes Dream of the Red Chamber one of the rare operas lacking a bass or baritone of any importance.

With George Manahan conducting, the principal singers were notable for some exceptional voices and fierce diction. I was particularly impressed by Pureum Jo's beautiful soprano and Yijie Shi's flexible tenor. In smaller roles, contralto Qiulin Zhang was a profoundly sympathetic Granny Jia while Karen Chia-ling Ho brought a lush soprano to the role of Princess Jia. Irene Roberts offered a sensitive portrait of Bao Chai. However, as Lady Wang, Hyona Kim's powerful mezzo-soprano and threatening stage presence allowed her to steal the show

Hyona Kim as Lady Wang in a scene from Bright Sheng's
Dream of the Red Chamber (Photo by: Cory Weaver)

Since the San Francisco Opera's video capabilities allow it to record each production, I hope that Dream of the Red Chamber will eventually become available on DVD. It's a beautiful piece of music theatre.

1 comment:

Shalini said...

This is an awesome post.Really very informative and creative contents. These concept is a good way to enhance the knowledge.I like it and help me to development very well.Thank you for this brief explanation and very nice information.Well, got a good knowledge.

digital marketing company in chennai
seo company in chennai