Features

An Epic Life Sings

The cosmopolitan Chinese-born composer Huang Ruo found an ideally operatic subject in Sun Yat-sen. LINDSLEY MIYOSHI explores the gestation of the work, which has its premiere this month in Santa Fe.

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Sun Yat-sen in 1924, with his beautiful second wife, Ching-ling
© akg-images/Universal Images Group/Sovfoto 2014
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Composer Huang Ruo
© Wenjun Miakoda Liang 2014
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Tenor Mok, who commissioned Dr. Sun Yat-sen

Where a person is born is no longer as important as when. Composer Huang Ruo was born in China, in 1976; the Cultural Revolution ended, releasing music from a ten-year stranglehold. Eclectically influenced — by "classical, avant-garde, world music (from ancient to present), rock and jazz, noise, etc.," he says — and working in widely ranging genres, he keeps garnering awards, grants, commissions and critics' praise. His music is unanimously characterized as fresh and distinctive; the vocal writing, marked by unusual Chinese-influenced ornamentation, is exceptionally singable for contemporary work, perhaps because he sings as he writes it. A composer since early childhood, Huang Ruo entered Shanghai Conservatory at the age of twelve after studying with his father, Huang Ying-sen, a composer for film and television. Leaving China in 1995, Huang Ruo won the Henry Mancini Prize in Switzerland, studied at Oberlin, earned his doctorate at Juilliard, then joined its faculty. Now New York-based, he is not so much Chinese as thoroughly globalized. So he is well equipped to handle the cosmopolitan hero of his opera Dr. Sun Yat-sen, a coproduction opening in Santa Fe this summer and going to Vancouver in 2016. 

Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925) is best known as "The Father of Modern China," a sober designation conveying neither the operatic flavor nor the geographic scope of his life. According to Taiwan-born Carolyn Kuan, music director of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, who will conduct the work in Santa Fe, he is "the one figure in Chinese history we all agree on — people from Taiwan, people from China, Chinese everywhere." A portrait of Sun was hanging in her childhood classroom; his statue dominates Columbus Park in New York's Chinatown. She considers this opera to be about "having a dream and passionately pursuing it." Sun's pursuit was a librettist's dream, spent on three continents in a series of exiles, reversals of fortune, betrayals and hair's-breadth escapes, culminating in the presidency of the Republic of China. 

The librettist is Candace Mui-ngam Chong, a Hong Kong playwright known here for her collaboration with David Henry Hwang (author of M. Butterfly) on the bilingual Broadway hit Chinglish. She is exactly Huang Ruo's age, and he calls her "an equal partner and equal creator," adding, "We hit it off right away, and we share many similar visions." The libretto, which incorporates some quotations from Sun Yat-sen's speeches, was shaped in close Skype collaboration and is almost all in Mandarin. Not only the Chinese singers but the Western ones in the mixed cast will be singing in that language. Mandarin is tonal: pitch affects meaning, so this presents particular challenges. Charles MacKay, director of Santa Fe Opera, notes that it is an important first as a statement about the "truly international" nature of the company's repertory: previous Santa Fe presentations of works by China-born composers, Tan Dun's Tea: A Mirror of Soul (2007) and Bright Sheng's Madame Mao (2003), were in English. Santa Fe will use supertitles, but Huang Ruo reports that New York audiences shown excerpts from an earlier version performed without them last year in two very different venues — the staid uptown Asia Society and the cutting-edge downtown club Poisson Rouge, cultures harder to bridge than America's and China's — were "equally enthusiastic," as YouTube clips attest. Kuan, who attended both performances, stresses that these clips are otherwise misleading, giving little indication of the much richer sound that will be heard in Santa Fe with a full orchestra. 

Treatments of Sun's life are usually epic, reverential and triumphalist; there are elements of this in some of the choral writing in Dr. Sun Yat-sen, but the opera concentrates, unusually, on the personal aspects. "It is about four kinds of love," the composer says — "between husband and wife or between lovers, friendship, between parents and children, love of country." The opera dramatizes what happens when these loves conflict. Sun Yat-sen (tenor) falls in love with Ching-ling (lyric soprano), the daughter of his best friend and political supporter, Charlie Soong (bass-baritone) — a character who deserves an opera of his own. Christian, Socialist and an early supporter of Sun's revolution (dangerous affiliations then), Soong was a laborer in the U.S., graduated from Vanderbilt University and returned to China as a missionary. One of his sons became the world's richest man; one daughter married the richest man in China, another married Chiang Kai-shek, and the middle one married Sun Yat-sen; the opera dramatizes the obstacles this couple overcame. These include Sun's first wife, Lu Mu-zhen (soprano), Soong's stated reason for opposing the marriage to his daughter — which he attempts to stop in a dramatic scene that is bound to remind operagoers of a similar moment in Madama Butterfly — but complex motivations emerge after she obtains the divorce Sun requests. 

"I find what I love about opera is character building," the composer says. He calls his technique "dimensionalism," defining it as a "process of looking at the entire opera, not just from one angle but all around — inside out, outside in." The opera opens with a party scene. As girls speculate about Sun's marital status, a halting rhythm is introduced. When Sun's bound-footed wife enters for the wedding scene in Act II, this rhythm recurs as she hobbles onstage. Such subliminal effects may illustrate what the composer means. He denies "collaging" East and West, but his extensive, exuberant use of percussion and his inclusion of Chinese instruments — the sheng mouth organ (which Kuan memorably calls a "Mini Me" version of the Western organ) and other bamboo winds, as well as strings such as the pipa — build an exotic atmosphere. The quanzhi, a double-reed pipe, he describes as "in its own category, unique, a character instrument, very sad, very touching — and intimate, like a human voice singing, so it pairs well with the voice, and it's not loud. I use it with the orchestra doing a low drone in the background and the voice soaring over it." This accompanies an Act III aria for Ching-ling, lamenting her miscarriage while escaping would-be assassins. 

Huang Ruo's two highest-profile precursors were Tan Dun, best known for his Oscar-winning score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and his Beijing Olympics ceremonies music, and Bright Sheng, whose work was also used in those ceremonies. Santa Fe has presented the works of both these composers. Also notable is Chen Kaige, whose 1993 art-house hit movie Farewell, My Concubine accustomed international audiences to Peking Opera, helping to pave the way for composers who combined that ancient genre with Western styles. But all sources interviewed here agree that Huang Ruo's work defies such obvious comparisons. MacKay calls it "a kind of Chinese bel canto" and identifies the folk music of Hainan Island, in the south of China, where the composer grew up, as an important influence. (The curious can watch Huang Ruo's delightful performance of a boatman's song on YouTube.) Kuan, who has been in discussion with Huang Ruo about the optimum placement of the Chinese instruments, singled out the shaking style of ornamentation, both vocal and instrumental, that is a feature of traditional Chinese music as the most important aspect of the opera's distinctive sound. "It's clearly an Asian style," she adds, "and people often ask me how far it's Asian, but his voice is fresh and unique, a blend of so many different things." Huang Ruo, who says recent viewings of Peking Opera in China reminded him of Robert Wilson, was born about twenty years later than Tan Dun and Bright Sheng. China, and the world's attitude to its music, evolved considerably during those decades — and has continued to do so since. Yet the governmental interference that played such an important role in shaping the earlier composers' careers and work — Tan Dun's was at one time banned outright, in its entirety, and Bright Sheng's grim experiences in the Cultural Revolution left their marks on his — has not been absent from Huang Ruo's. 

Dr. Sun Yat-sen was commissioned by Warren Mok, director of Opera Hong Kong, who sang the title role there at the world premiere in October and will reprise it in Santa Fe. The world premiere had originally been scheduled for Beijing's National Center for the Performing Arts in September 2011, the centenary of Sun's revolution; another run was planned in Guangzhou. With the libretto approved, the composer had no reason to anticipate trouble, but in August, a party official announced that the premiere was "postponed indefinitely." Guangzhou canceled its commitment, too. (Because the orchestra in Hong Kong uses traditional Chinese instruments, the premiere was a different version from that originally prepared for Beijing's Western-style orchestra.) 

Speculation about the reasons for the last-minute censorship ranged from the opera's emphasis on Sun Yat-sen's personal life and the insufficiently rousing nature of the music to party infighting that had nothing to do with the opera itself. It might have been due to tensions in Sino-Japanese relations; in Act II, a Japanese character helps and harbors Dr. Sun in Yokohama. 

MacKay first became interested in the work when he read an enthusiastic review of the premiere performance in Opera by its editor, John Allison, an old friend; he remembered having seen the New York Times coverage of the ban on the planned Beijing production. Mackay found clips of Huang Ruo's music on YouTube and was intrigued, finding the music "exotic yet accessible." He characterizes the composer's style as "a really original and striking voice," adding that the vocal lines are "very singable." Having seen a DVD of the original Hong Kong performance, MacKay asked Huang Ruo if he would be willing to shorten the opera somewhat. The Santa Fe performance will actually be a world premiere, of a newly revised version incorporating both Western and Chinese instruments. The composer hopes it will be heard on the mainland "someday." 

Huang Ruo's latest projects deal again with real-life characters. Bound, for Houston Grand Opera, concerns a Vietnamese immigrant high-school student who was jailed for truancy when the multiple jobs she did to support her family impeded her attendance at school. For Washington National Opera, the composer is collaborating with David Henry Hwang on An American Soldier, a chamber opera about Private Danny Chen, a Chinese–American soldier sent to Afghanistan and driven to suicide by the bullying of his superiors. These operas — however controversial — are unlikely to encounter censorship. spacer 

LINDSLEY CAMERON MIYOSHI has written for The New York Times and The New Yorker about East Asian performing arts and literature and is the author of The Music of Light, a biography of the Japanese composer Hikari Oe. 

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Current Issue: November 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 5