New opera from China crosses national boundaries

From 1965 to 1976 all
Western art was forbidden in China as the embodiment of bourgeois decadence.
And although the shadows of repression and censorship fell upon artists in
other totalitarian states, nowhere was a ban so intensely carried out as in
the China of Mao and his sometimes-actress wife.

Take the life of Han Jiang Tian, the impressive China-born bass now at
home in the opera houses of the world and star of Guo Wenjingís ìPoet Li
Bai,î premiered at Coloradoís Central City Opera on July 7. Tianís
musician parents were sentenced to ìreeducation,î while he was sent to
work in a factory. His piano teacher went to prison. He recalls smashing the
familyís records of Western music to avoid further accusations of guilt.

When the Beijing Conservatory reopened in 1978 composer Guo was one of
17,000 who applied for admission. There he was the student of Zhou Xiaoyan,
head of the opera department. Then 85, she had studied in Paris, and then
spent the years of the Cultural Revolution in rice paddies.

The Central City team for ìLi Baiî ó dramatist Xu Ying, director Lin
Zhaohua and designer Yi Liming ó are all of this same generation, and ó
given this background ó their dedication to the ìnew waveî of Chinese
music that is now sweeping the world is hardly surprising.Guo, along with
composers Tan Dun, Bright Sheng and Chen Yi, are the first generation of
Chinese artists to reach maturity after the Cultural Revolution. And although
the subject matter of their works might seem far removed from the modern
world, this sad chapter of history shaped and defined them.

When one surveys their work ó Dun, Sheng and Chen Yi have long been
residents of this country ó one senses an immense creative energy ó
indeed, a fervor ó that built up in them during years of repression and was
released with the end of Maoism. With two premieres by Dun in a single season
ó ìFirst Emperorî at the Met in December and ìTea: A Mirror of
Soulî on stage in Santa Fe later this summer, these composers are now
dominant figures in Americaís opera houses. (Shengís ìMadame Maoî was
premiered in Santa Fe in 2003, after his ìSilver Riverî had made the
rounds of summer festivals.) The Central City premiere, beyond doubt the
highlight of the companyís 75th anniversary season, left a capacity
audience stunned both by the beauty and the dramatic impact of Guoís
90-minute, one-act work.

Li Bai, an 8th-century poet forbidden during the Cultural Revolution, was
a free spirit who went his own way ó even if this resulted in exile and
death at 42. Parallels felt by artists in modern China are self-evident. And
they offer insight into the intensity of his story and the metaphoric
significance that it has for artists there today. Indeed, Tian portrayed Li
Bai in his final hours ó an inner dialogue largely with his Muses Wine and
Moon ó as if he had been waiting for this role his entire mature life.
Since ìPoetî is billed as ìa Western opera sung in Chinese,î it
seemed appropriate to ask just how Western ó or Eastern ó the work is.
ìDefinitions are not important!î Guo said in an interview, emphatically
waving the question aside. ìDescriptions say nothing about the work!î He
went on to stress that although much in ìPoetî is derived from classical
Chinese opera, the new work stands in no direct relationship to this
tradition. The markings of tradition were stronger in his earlier works, he

Guo draws a sharp line between the fusion of East and West encountered in
good contemporary Chinese music and the ìsimple Westernizationî in which
some engage. This, he stresses, leads to kitsch or ìsilly sweetnessî ó
to a boring compromise where everything is tasteless. He compares it with the
mediocre food served at many ìChineseî restaurants in the West. The
sensitive melding of East and West , on the other hand, brings new energy to
Western music much as Bartok did almost a century ago and as Argentinaís
Oswaldo Golojov is doing today. ìDifferent races together make a more
beautiful baby,î Guo says.

Works by Dun and Sheng have been performed thus far in English, and the
original libretto of ìPoetî was in that language as well. Guo, however,
insisted that the work be sung in Chinese ó in part because of constant
references to ó and quotations from ó Li Baiís verse.The language of
the poetís time, he points out, was largely monosyllabic. It lends itself
to narrative singing, enhanced by verbal ink splashes and delicate brush
strokes in the text. (ìPoetî calls for an orchestra of 50, plus a single
Chinese bamboo flute.)

Dutch conductor Spanjaard, on the CCO podium for ìPoet,î has worked
with Guo on various endeavors since 1991. He is especially impressed by the
composerís ability to make gloomy subject matter attractive. Indeed, the
conductor speaks of an ìexcitement of gloomî in these scores and of
Guoís ability to create ìan electric atmosphereî through his incredible
command of orchestration. And CCO general and artistic director Pelham
(ìPatî) Pearce notes how impressed he is by Guoís writing for voice in
other works. ìHe knows how to let the voice soar,î Pearce says. ìHis
vocal lines are a gift to singers.î It can hardly be overlooked that the
Magistrate, the man who speaks for the absolute state in declaring Li Bai
guilty, is the only figure in the opera appropriated from Peking opera. And
in tenor Jiang Qihuís singing of the role one senses the cold edge of
absolute power that was the standard in Maoís China.

The genesis of ìPoetî dates back to 2000, when Hong Kong-born Diana
Liao, a United-Nations translator and frequent collaborator with Chinese
composers, began work on the libretto, which she soon completed with the help
of playwright Xu Ying. It was destined for a Central City premiere, when
support for the project came from Asian Performing Arts of Colorado, a
volunteer organization headed by Liaoís sister Martha, whose basso husband
Hao Jiang Tian was the obvious choice for the title role.

While Guo worked on the score, this collective took to the countryís
Silk Road to gain a ìfeelî for the landscape where Li Bai had roamed on
horseback. To insure the success ó and authenticity of the staging the CCO
recruited an all-Chinese cast and production. This genesis, of course, says
little about the artistic achievement involved and the overwhelming impact
that the work had on the opening-night crowd in the historic Central City
Opera House. It was a unique experience for those present, for there has been
nothing like ìPoetî before ó not even in other works by Guo.

Guoís cross-fertilization of East and West has resulted in a largely
lyrically and totally tonal idiom ó new, personal and original ó that
combines both traditions in mesmerizing music. Long melodic lines resist
tonic-dominant ìpullî and hover hauntingly over the story of the
ill-fated poet who enjoys the respect among Chinese that Anglo-Saxons lavish
on Shakespeare. ìWhen I write, I really donít want to reflect what
happened a thousand years ago,î the composer commented. ìI donít know
how it sounded ó nobody knows how it sounded. ìI write entirely for the
audience of today.î

Supporting roles in ìPoetî were magnificently sung by Li Baiís
Muses, tenor Chi Limig (Wine) and soprano Ying Huang (Moon). Special praise
was earned by a chorus of 30 from the University of Denverís Lamont School
of Music, impeccably trained by Catherine Sailer.ìPoet,î Guo summarizes,
underscoring the universality of the work, ìis the story of the hopes and
fears of a legendary man who loved life with a passion to the very end.î
And although in the opera Li Bai dies reconciled with the word, an undertow
of sadness in the score recalls the era in which it was written.

Here, too, the shadows of recent history lend weight to the work, which in
its way also pays tribute to those who did not survive the persecution and
prisons of this age. The CCO premiere of ìPoet Li Biî further celebrated
the 20th anniversary of co-commissioner Asian Performing Arts Colorado, major
force in bringing project to fruition. Li Bai, by the way, is not a stranger
to many in the West, for Gustav Mahler drew heavily on his verse for the
texts in ìDas Lied von der Erde.î

Wes Blomster

image_description=(L to R): Hao Jiang Tian (Li Bai) and Chi Liming (Wine) Photo by Mark Kiryluk
product_title=Above: (L to R): Hao Jiang Tian (Li Bai) and Chi Liming (Wine)
Photo by Mark Kiryluk