• The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with composer Huang Ruo

    This is a fascinating interview with the very smart, very creative avant-garde composer and conductor Huang Ruo. He is the Chinese-born creator of four operas, including the very successful Dr. Sun Yat-sen that recently had its US premiere in Santa Fe, and Paradise Interrupted shown in the 2015 Spoleto USA Festival (it will be soon at the Asia Society in New York City on April 5, 2016). This exclusive, in-person, must-read interview contains many interesting insights by one of the most talented contemporary composers in activity. It is Opera Lively's interview #173, done in the summer of 2015, but for various reasons it only now got transcribed and published, out of order. The delay doesn't detract from the content, given that Mr. Huang often talks about his music and opera in general rather than only about his exquisite piece that we were about to see when we met him in Charleston, SC. From him we can learn about ancient Chinese instruments, the state of opera in China, and the workings of his creative process, among other topics. Mr. Huang impressed us for his calm demeanor, relaxed and friendly style, and contagious smile. He patiently walked us through the complexity of his music. Enjoy!


    Artistic Biography

    Awarded First Prize by the prestigious Luxembourg International Composition competition, Huang Ruo's opera Paradise Interrupted received critic acclaim from The New York Times: “The composer Huang Ruo and the artist Jennifer Wen Ma have gloriously fused Western and Chinese idioms, modernity and tradition, to create a mesmerizing new work.”

    His vibrant and inventive musical voice draws equal inspiration from Chinese folk, Western avant-garde, rock, and jazz to create a seamless, organic integration using a compositional technique he calls “dimensionalism.” Huang Ruo’s writing spans from orchestra, chamber music, opera, theater, and modern dance, to sound installation, multi-media, experimental improvisation, folk rock, and film.

    Ensembles that have premiered and performed his music include the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Asko Ensemble, Nieuw Ensemble, Quatuor Diotima, and Dutch Vocal Laboratory.

    Huang Ruo has collaborated with New York City Ballet’s principal dancer Damian Woetzel and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, in addition to kinetic painter Norman Perryman. In 2003, Miller Theatre featured Huang Ruo on its Composer Portraits series, where his four chamber concertos were premiered as a cycle with him conducting.

    New York Times critic Allan Kozinn listed this concert as the second on the list of his “Top Ten Classical Moments of 2003.” Huang Ruo’s Chamber Concerto Cycle was released on Naxos CD in February 2007.

    Leaving Sao, a work for orchestra and Chinese Folk Voice, was released on Albany Records with his own singing in 2008; and Divergence came out on Koch International in 2009.

    Huang Ruo’s film credits include soundtracks for Jian-Fu Garden and Stand Up. The latter was recently named the Official Selection for the Rhode Island International Film Festival and the Atlanta International Film Festival.

    Aside from being an avant-garde composer, he is also a conductor and Chinese folk-rock singer, releasing commercial recordings on Naxos and Albany Records, and making debuts at Lincoln Center as well as Carnegie Hall.

    Also noted as an author, Huang Ruo published Selection of Classic Chinese Folk Songs with the Zhong Shan University Press.

    Huang Ruo has been an invited lecturer and forum presenter at New York University, Columbia University, Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and Guangzhou Conservatory of Music. He was also a visiting composer at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the University of Georgia.

    Huang Ruo's opera Paradise Interrupted

    Huang Ruo was born in Hainan Island, China, in 1976, the year the Chinese Cultural Revolution ended. His father, who is a well-known composer in China, began teaching him composition and piano when he was six years old. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, when China was steadily opening its gates to the Western world, he received both traditional and Western education at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. He was admitted into its composition program, studying with Deng Erbo at the age of twelve.

    As a result of the dramatic cultural and economic changes in China following the Cultural Revolution, his education expanded from Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky, and Lutosławski to include the Beatles, rock and roll, heavy metal, and jazz. Huang Ruo was able to absorb all of these newly allowed Western influences without inhibiting factors.

    As a member of the new generation of Chinese composers, he clearly knows that his goal and task is not just to mix both Western and Eastern elements, but to go beyond that to create a seamless integration and a convincing organic unity, drawing influences from various genres and cultures.

    After winning the Henry Mancini Award at the 1995 International Film and Music Festival in Switzerland, he moved to the United States to further his education. Since then, he has earned a Bachelor of Music degree from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees in composition from the Juilliard School.

    Huang Ruo is currently a member of the composition faculty at SUNY Purchase. He is the artistic director and conductor of Future In REverse (FIRE), and was selected as a Young Leader Fellow by the National Committee on United States–China Relations in 2006.

    He was recently named the Composer in Residence at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. He is now back to Taipei occupying a similar position of Composer in Residence for the Taiwan National Symphony Orchestra.

    His work is being performed by some of the greatest orchestras in the world. Some examples: the Copenhagen Philharmonic, the Houston Symphony, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, the Orquesta Sinfónica de Bilbao, and the Concertegbouw in Amsterdam; his work was shown recently on TV by BBC Music.

    He recently signed an exclusive publishing contract with the Casa Ricordi / UMPC (Universal Music Publishing Group).



    "Chamber Concertos Nos 1 to 4", International Contemporary Ensemble, and Mandy Corrado, Naxos CD

    Huang Ruo, "To The Four Corners", Future In REverse (F.I.R.E.) Naxos CD

    New Music from Bowling Green, Vol. 5, Emily Freeman Brown (Conductor), Bowling Green Philharmonia, Albani CD

    Beckoning - New Music for Cello, Anthony Arnone, MSR Classica CD

    Luciano Bering - Huang Ruo, Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, David Bowlin violin, Timothy Weiss conductor, CD

    International Composition Prize Luxembourg 2008, World Premiere Recordings, New Works for Solo-Sheng and Orchestra": Huang Ruo, "MO"; Luxembourg Sinfonietta, Conductor: Marcel Wengler, LGNM CD


    First prize, International Composition Competition, Luxembourg, 2008 with "MO".
    First prize, Celebrate Asia! composition competition, 2010 with "The Yellow Earth"
    Henry Mancini Award at the 1995 International Film and Music Festival in Switzerland

    Selected works

    - "Being...", for alto saxophone (or clarinet) and viola (1999)
    - "Omnipresence", violin concerto (2003)
    - "Tree Without Wind", (2004)
    - "Leaving Sao", for Chinese folk vocalist and orchestra, (2004)
    - "Four Fragments", for amplified violin
    - "String Quartet No.1", The Three Tenses, (2005)
    - "Wind Blows...", for viola and piano (2007)
    - "MO", for sheng and orchestra (2008)
    - Dr. Sun Yat-sen (opera) 2011
    - Bound (chamber opera) 2014
    - An American Soldier (opera) (2014)
    - Paradise Interrupted (opera) 2015


    The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with composer Huang Ruo

    This is our interview #173, published out of order due to transcription delays (we are at #195 now). Copyright Opera Lively. Reproduction of excerpts is authorized for all purposes as long as the source is quoted and a link to the full piece is provided. Reproduction of the entire interview requires authorization - use the Contact Us form. Photos are fair promotional use (we do not know the names of all the photographers; will be happy to include if we are told who they are).

    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively - Let’s start by talking about Paradise Interrupted. Please explain to our readers why it is called an installation opera, and what exactly the concept entails.

    Huang Ruo - It’s called an installation opera because I work it a visual artist, Jennifer Wen Ma, and she has this concept of creating a black garden that opens and close. We start with that installation. So the in this case the installation comes first and the opera comes after that, instead of in order cases when you have the story, the words, the music, and then you have a stage designer to make the sets, but in this case we have the installation first.

    Now, in the opera itself we also have projections. It’s a multimedia spectacle that uses interactive technique. The female singer Qian Yi, when she sings in certain parts, the visuals interact with her voice. In that sense it is a complete package of what opera is about. It also has dance. We were trying to find the best word to describe it, and at the end we picked installation opera.

    OL - OK, so while in most Western operas the libretto is written first, then it is set to music, and last the scenery and costumes are added, it seems like in the creation of this piece, Ms. Jennifer Wen Ma’s imagery was the starting point. Please tell me in what way this influenced your composition technique.

    HR - Because the set comes first, we created a story based on Ms. Ma’s concept, with music that creates the drama according to her scenario. To me what is interesting is that from the story I planned to have the paradise interrupted twice. In the very beginning the woman is waking up from a dream, unwillingly. So that interruption was created by the wind, or by animals. Then the second time, though the journey of searching for her dream garden, her paradise, she falls back to sleep again. But the second time she intentionally interrupts her own paradise. It’s still the same paradise but the second time she makes that transformation. She grows out of the containment of that paradise, so the second interruption was conscious.

    Musically speaking, the first dream and the second one are very different. How the first one ended and how the second one ended is also quite different. So what was interesting to me was how to create these parallels – it’s not the same, it’s different, and the second one is much grander, larger, and more satisfying. But it is also more interruption-driven. All of this doing enables the last aria, where she signals that she now can freely paint any garden, any imagery she wants, because she frees herself out of the containment of the white flower. So the music needs to comment on these aspects as well.

    The music, the installation, and the story were created all with a similar pace. When I was talking with both Jennifer and Qian Yi – we often had meetings – we decided that we wanted not only to have the Kungu opera singer for the entire opera, but I suggested that we added four male singers. Now these four male singers should not be Eastern operatic singers. They should be Western ones, to create an interesting dialogue. So with these four elements plus Qian Yi we created a multi-dimensional opera. The music of course is also creating those five dimensions.

    OL - This is a very symbolic piece, exploring the issue of a woman pursuing something that she idealizes but can’t reach except in dreams. It seems to evolve into self-discovery. I realize that the white flower at the end becomes black ink, so that she can use it to paint. Please tell us more about the symbolic arc in this opera.

    Soprano Qian Yi in the final scene with the ink pool - Photo Jane Lynn

    HR - Exactly. Actually the black ink pool at the end comes for the collapse of the garden. Then you see the black ashes raining down. So the destruction of the garden becomes the rain drops in the ink pool. First of all, the garden was an imaginary paradise of hers. The four male singers are guiding her all the way. We cannot say if they are good or bad guys. They are just spirits, or elements guiding her on this journey. Yes, at some point you can see that they trap her in the white flower, but also they enable her and help her to free herself as well. So the ink pool was all the concentration of the ashes of the garden. She is standing inside the ink pool and now she can freely paint, whatever she wishes to paint.

    OL – Beautiful; I look forward to it. I’ll see it tomorrow.

    HR – Good, so I should not tell you too many details. [laughs]

    OL - You were introduced to Ms. Jennifer Wen Ma by soprano Qian Yi. Please tell us a little about the background behind the composition and its circumstances. Why where you picked to do this, and why did the project spike your interest?

    HR - Qian Yi and I were working on a Broadway play by David Henry Hwang called The Dance and the Railroad, so we had a wonderful time working together. The play was running for several weeks, and Jen came to see the play, getting to know my music. Qian Yi brought us together and we had a wonderful diner meeting, just talking about ideas. For artists to collaborate, the most important thing is that the artists must have similar aesthetics, similar taste, and similar approach.

    Jennifer showed us a model of a small garden she made. It’s a very contemporary garden but it still kept the traditional Chinese aspects. So for me, that is exactly what I want to do as well – to create new music that belongs to our 21st century, have internationalism, but also continues with the tradition. In this case it was very appropriate to use this as well, because we had a Kungu opera singer, and that tradition now is diminishing. We wanted to continue to embrace that and develop it.

    OL - Creating a new opera must be very exciting. Please describe to us the process of creating this piece. Did you and Jennifer Wen Ma, Qian Yi, and Ji Chao get together to brainstorm about each part? Did you adapt your writing to Ms. Qian Yi’s voice or was it the other way around, with her making suggestions – or both? Between the four of you, who was the driving force if there was such thing? How long did it take to put it all together?

    HR - The process of creating this piece was great and very rewarding. Ji Chao is from Beijing, and he is trained as a writer for traditional Chinese opera. He wrote the libretto in Chinese. He created it. For us it was team work as well because Jen had the concept and the original story, but we flashed it out with more dramas, more details, and then we gave feedback to each other on these ideas, to create these details.

    So in certain places we didn’t like certain words; we all discussed together to find the best words to fit that. In this sense, this was a great collaboration with the four of us together. We created this very beautiful libretto, I should say. It’s written in the style of ancient Chinese. Some of it was quite ancient, because in the first scene we used some quotations from The Peony Pavillion by Tang Xianzu written in 1598. Our piece is inspired by it but is a departure from it.

    OL – Yes, because in The Peony Pavillion the female character wakes up from a dream of love, feels lonely, and kills herself, which doesn’t happen in Paradise Interrupted.

    HR – Exactly. And then if you read it the libretto in Chinese it gets more and more contemporary language towards the end. In the last aria it totally frees itself out.

    OL – Even the words?

    HR – Yes, even the words; the language itself. If you read the Chinese libretto there is a transformation in the words as well, from very ancient Chinese with quotations from not only The Peony Pavillion but also other texts, and then later on it becomes more and more free from the traditionalism.

    OL – Very interesting. So who do you think was the driving force? Was it Jennifer, was it you…?

    HR – Jennifer, definitely. She started the whole thing and brought all of us together to create this project.

    OL - Are you satisfied with the final product? Would you change anything? Do you think your artistic vision or the artistic vision of your co-creators got properly expressed?

    HR – At least from my point of view I’m very happy about how the singers and the orchestra brought out the music. I’m happy about this opera, and Jen also feels that it fulfills her vision. As installation operas go, every space we show it may have certain changes according to the venue. We are also talking about creating a museum version, or a gallery version. It would be shown in a museum or a gallery as an installation.

    OL – You’d have the music too, in recordings or videos?

    HR – That’s right. What we hope to do is, let’s say, we will open the show with several days of live performances, and then the installation will stay there with recordings of sound, and we would project images of the singers. It would be a different piece of art, but it would mirror the opera.

    OL - I’m very curious about the fact that in your vocal writing for this piece, you made Qian Yi sing in Chinese operatic tradition while the four male characters sing in Western tradition. Why did you chose this approach?

    HR – What my original intention was, was to create a 21st century opera. It’s not a new Kunqu style opera. I wanted to make it more international and to reality combine the Western opera genre and the Chinese opera genre. We started with the voice. She is the main voice, the only female in the opera, and she came from a Kunqu singing background and voice style. I thought of using these four male voices – I don’t know if it has been done before, combining the two singing techniques.

    With these four male voices we go from very low to very high. We have a bass-baritone who sings a low G, up to a countertenor who sings in the soprano range. All the male voices create this huge spectrum of sounds and colors that surround or frame the female voice who sings in this very ancient style. I had this imagination of how beautiful that could be, and it is totally new, especially when you think that the countertenor sings above Qian Yi. She would be the Western equivalent of a mezzo-soprano in her vocal range, and the countertenor I wrote for is a high countertenor. When these two voices are intertwining it does create the illusion that he is part of her. Which one is leading? Who is guiding? In a way, the countertenor is almost like a shadow. They complete each other.

    OL – That’s so interesting!

    HR – [laughs]

    OL - You seem to navigate very skillfully the interface between Western and Eastern music, being Chinese-born but Oberlin- and Juilliard educated. These fusion of two worlds is certainly interesting and I’m extremely curious to listen to your music tomorrow, but being a bit of a Devil’s advocate, let me ask you, is there a true advantage in merging those two styles? While interviewing the Sweden baritone Peter Mattei, he told me that he wishes that different countries kept their own styles instead of the progressive globalization of opera, because he is afraid that too much merger will decrease the specificity of the legacy of each culture. What would you say to that?

    HR – What I do is not fusion and is not a merger, but is something that from within, comes out. It’s integration. Let me explain it to you further. It’s like any antique. I personally love antiques, whether they be paintings like Mona Lisa, or sounds like a very ancient chant, both from the West and from the East. There should be people to preserve them. They belong to History, to textbooks, to museums. That is one way to preserve that, and someone should do that, instead of just disregarding or ignoring History.

    And then there is a second way for a creative artist to develop History, to develop the culture. That’s what I see myself doing. Another way to keep the tradition alive is to bring new life to it, to create something new out of that.

    So what I do, instead of saying “OK, East and West, let’s mix them together” is to try to find the very basic cell of each element. In that sense, even if the voices are Eastern and Western, the music is neutral. Everything is created organically. I do not use any quotation, and I do not use any references. Every note, every phrase you hear is originally created for this opera, and I wrote it. It is one-year old.

    I tried to find the essence of each style, and then create something specific for these voice types, for their singing. When you hear it, I hope, it will organically convincing, entirely. It is new. If we do this opera in front of a Chinese audience they will not say “this is a Chinese opera.” They will not say “this is a Western opera” either. I hope when I show it to Western audiences people will not say “oh, that’s what Chinese opera is like.” Obviously they won’t say that it is a Western opera either.

    So what is it? That’s what I’m interested in: to have people ask the question. What is this? I don’t mind that we don’t have an answer, and that’s what I think 21st century opera should be: so inclusive, so varied. Many voices, many influences can come together, and become pieces. We break everything down into ashes and put it in the soil, and then whatever grows out of that becomes something new and fresh. So that’s what I want to do. [laughs]

    OL – Very good, fabulous answer! Your orchestra also employs Western and Eastern instruments. Would you please describe some of the Chinese instruments, and explain to us what they bring to the harmonies and the colors of the piece?

    HR – There are three Chinese musicians in our orchestra. It’s a total of fourteen instruments: eleven Western instruments, and I don’t want to say three Chinese instruments, because for one of them, the musician plays multiple instruments.

    We have a Sheng, which is a Chinese mouth organ that has many bamboo pipes. It’s an ancestor of the Western organ. The Sheng is a traditional harmonica instrument because you can play multiple notes at the same time. To play it you don’t need to stop to breathe – because when you blow and exhale, and then you inhale, the sound continues. This instrument has been part of the Chinese musical tradition for a long time, so I wanted to use it for this opera. It’s like a small organ and is beautiful-sounding.

    Another instrument is called Pipa, which is a traditional Kunqu opera instrument, as well. It is four strings that you pluck. It’s like a Chinese lute, but instead of playing sideways, you play it vertically, this way [demonstrates].

    The third instrument is the Dizi which is like a flute, and I have multiple ones; higher-pitch one, lower-pitch one, throughout the opera, so there are multiple Dizis.

    All these instruments play together with the Western instruments. The reason I don’t say it’s a fusion of two instruments, is because I mix everything together, so when you hear it, the sound world is an entirety. Occasionally one instrument comes up and then disappears. It becomes this organic sound world, just like with the voices. I hope these instruments create a dialogue, a panel.

    OL - You have always worked across many genres. Your compositions go from classical to experimental to jazz, and you create avant-garde music from small ensembles and sound installations to large orchestras. So, is there a musical style that could define you, or are you very varied? What are the core ideas that are behind your compositional career?

    HR – When I write for different projects I often like to think about what is unique about different genres – different instrumentation, different story, and I want to create music specifically suitable for that. This said, I do believe – I hope – that I am consistent with my own musical and compositional style. It is always hard for a composer to describe your own style. I do hope that people will identify that when they hear my music.

    I do use a technique – which I created – to compose. It’s called dimensionalism. Basically it’s a way to perceive and create music. It comes both ways: you create, and you perceive music with dimensions. So, a piece of Bach, a piece of ancient chant, a piece of rock-and-roll, a piece of electronic music, no matter what music it is, as long as it sound and silence, it has dimensions. One note has dimensions. An entire symphonic work has dimensions. Individually they have dimensions, and altogether they have a dimension. It’s about space and time.

    So with that concept I create music, and I also listen to music that way. For me music is not left to right like a book or a score, and it is not just listening to an orchestra sitting in front of it, but the musical experience is like driving through it and coming out of it.

    OL – Like you are immersed in the middle of it?

    HR – Exactly. That’s what I call dimensionalism. There was a chamber music concert I gave a few days ago as part of the Music in Time concert series. This piece is called The Lost Garden. I wrote it in 2002. I also have the musicians vocalizing, speaking, and chanting. They walk down the alley and disappear into the audience at the end. So to me the entire space is a theater, where the audience is part of it as well. I want to break the boundary between the stage and the audience.

    OL – Nice. You’ve composed a few operas already, right? Your Dr. Sun Yat-sen was very well-received n Santa Fe. What attracts you to the operatic medium?

    HR – Paradise Lost is actually my fourth opera, now. [laughs] People always say, once you are bitten by the opera bug can’t let go. The first opera was Dr. Sun Yat-sen. It’s a full evening opera, with chorus, dances, and full orchestra. The second one was a chamber opera called Bound. I wrote it for the Houston Grand Opera.

    Andrew Stenson, second from left, plays pvt. Chen, picture Sarah Tilotta/NPR

    The third opera which premiered last year right before Santa Fe and it was commissioned and written for the Washington National Opera, and is called An American Soldier. It’s about the life and death of an American Army private, Danny Chen. It is very different from Paradise Interrupted. It’s a realism opera but also a docu-opera, because it is based on a real story which only happened three or four years ago, based on real people, and the parents of Danny Chen even came to our premiere.

    OL – A docu-opera?

    HR – [laughs] Docu as in documentary. It is so close to the life events that it is almost like a documentary of what happened.

    But going back to your question, what attracts me to the operatic medium. Yes, some people view music as entertainment. Music can entertain people. But I also feel that music has a larger role to play. It’s a place for people to come and get something out of it. It helps advancing society and moving civilization forwards. It makes people learn something.

    Art and music have that duty, as well, and opera inevitably will have a story, no matter if it is abstract or narrative; it will have visuals integrated in it, and therefore it is the perfect place to be theatrical and to create a total art form.

    In this case, I remember, even when I write instrumental music I want to be theatrical. I want to be very dramatic. I have musicians doing more things than just playing their instruments, for example, and music itself is more in a dialogue format, in a dimensional format, instead of just a piece of fine music. In opera I do feel that I find my voice, as a composer.

    I do feel that I have a sense of drama that is not just about writing music setting it to texts. I need to be a dramaturg, to have a pace and a story and everything. So it’s a big challenge, a lot of word, but to see all these characters in your mind for more than a year, suddenly coming alive on stage, feeling, acting, expressing, being happy, being sad, is almost like you are creating a dimensional magical world. So that to me is very rewarding, not to mention when people come and they really feel something and get something out of that. It is a powerful experience.

    OL – Yes, it is. You couldn’t have said it any better. Are you composing a fifth one?

    HR – Well, it is in planning stage, so I cannot give a lot of detail yet, because it has not been finalized, but the fifth opera will hopefully be announced soon. For the time being I have a residency with the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. I’m the composer in residency and the next piece I’m doing will be an instrumental work for the Concertgebouw music hall.

    OL – Are you composing more opera than anything else, right now? How do you divide your career between instrumental and vocal music?

    HR – The past several years I wrote more operas than instrumental music. I also write for film; I don’t know if you know it. All these different projects, I take on them when there is an artistic vision, and when they can challenge me, and when they are compelling and interesting. So I’m happy that I can have so many different things to do. Maybe I’d be bored if I did one thing and one thing only. So, I like this balance. I finished Paradise Interrupted and my next piece is an orchestra work, so this can turn my mind into different sound words, and then I’ll come back to opera. In that sense it’s a good balance.

    OL – It must be nice to compose for the Concertgebouw. Many say it’s the best orchestra in the world.

    HR – True. Not only the best orchestra, but the hall itself is great. I was hired by the Hall and to create something in that building will be interesting because they want me to use my dimensionalism idea, to create something specific to that space. If you go inside, it is not designed as just an audience and the stage.

    OL – Yes, the audience surrounds the stage all around it.

    HR – Exactly. Centuries ago, the architects of that building already had a concept of including and engaging the audience in a sound experience. So I think it will be great.

    OL – Congratulations!

    HR – Thank you!

    OL - Please tell our readers about Dr. Sun Yat-sen. Describe it musically and theatrically.

    HR – Dr. Sun Yat-sen is based on the life of the founding father of modern China. I came up with this topic when Opera Hong Kong first approached me to create an opera.

    The reason I wanted to write about Sun Yat-sen is that he is of course a well-known politician, not only for Chinese people around the world but also for the West as well. He founded the Kuomintang [Chinese Nationalist Party] which rules Taiwan right now [Editor’s note – this was true at the time of this interview being recorded – now the party became the opposition after the 2015 electoral losses].

    And also he was the person who enabled the collapse of the Qing dynasty. Another interesting about him is that he was the president of China at the time, but he was willing to give up his presidency in favor of Yuan Shikai, who was the Army lord of the North. The only condition was that Yuan Shikai would get rid of the last emperor of China, and Yuan Shikai did it, so he willingly gave up his presidential status. I don’t know how many leaders in the world would have done that, with that vision, and would have that ability to let go.

    For me, he is a real person; a person who dares to hate, dares to love, and dares to give first, and the he is a leader. So I focused on his life story, and his love story – the love triangle between his first wife Lu Muzhen and his last wife, Soong Ching-ling, who was much younger than him, but was the daughter of his best friend and supporter Charles Soong. Because of that marriage Charles broke the friendship with him and stopped supporting him. But he went for love, instead of his ego of a politician. In that sense I do fell that there is something operatic in that story. [laughs]

    So that’s why I chose to write Dr. Sun Yat-sen. The American premiere was in Santa Fe. Now, what was interesting is that in the Hong Kong world premiere we had an entire orchestra only with Chinese instruments. So you see, fifty to sixty Chinese instruments sitting in the pit. With the Santa Fe version it was mainly Western instruments plus a few Chinese instruments. So, I personally would like to think of it as a world premiere for that version.

    OL – Did you have to re-write it?

    HR – I did. Yes, we orchestrated it again.

    OL – So what kind of music style is that? Is it more fragmented and contemporary, or more inspired by Chinese tradition?

    HR – It has both lyrical and dramatic moments like all other operas of mine do. Again, it is hard for me to define the style. But I’d like to think of it as an integration, again, of Western and Eastern styles. It depends on the character. The character of Sun Yat-sen’s first wife, Lu Muzhen, is a bound-feet lady who walks with her bound feet. For her, I tipped more towards Chinese style because she represents the old and more traditional China. With Ching-ling who is a Western-educated young lady who just graduated from a university in America and who wrote letters in English, her vocal style is full lyric, while the first wife is more of a high light lyric. So the vocalization is already quite different. Her style is more inclusive of Western influences in the vocal writing.

    OL - If you had to guide a music lover who wanted to get to know your compositions, would you advise the person to pick some favorites that are dearest to your heart, or the pieces that are most demonstrative of your style? If yes, which ones?

    HR – Opera, or something else?

    OL – Whatever you think is best for someone trying to get to know your music.

    HR – I would say that they can start with my first feature CD which has my first chamber concerto cycle on it. The first chamber concerto called Yueh Fei, I really feel that was the piece that really defines who I am. That piece was written in 2000. I wrote it in my very last year of college. Of the pieces I wrote during my college years, I only kept two pieces that I allowed to be performed. This is one of the two. The CD is called Chamber Concerto Cycle, with Naxos, and the first one is Yueh Fei. The second one that is also in the CD we played a few days ago in the Music in Time concert, called The Lost Garden, the one I told you about that has theatricality with the musicians walking away into the audience. So this CD I think would be a good starting point.

    OL – What’s your favorite piece that you ever composed?

    HR – You know, ah… it is really hard to say. I wish I could tell you. Every piece is so dear to me… Yeah, it’s hard to say… [laughs] They are all in different genres.

    OL – Fair enough. Let’s turn a little bit to your native country. Please describe the operatic environment in China. In terms of popularity, what would be the, so to speak, percentage of market share between Chinese traditional opera and Western opera? What about the share between Kunqu opera and more free-form pieces? Is Chinese opera everywhere and Western opera attracts just a small fraction of the public, or is the latter very significant? What is the future of Western opera in China?

    HR – The current environment for both Western and Eastern opera in China… I should say that Western opera is something new to Chinese audiences. After the Cultural Revolution we had what we call the Revolutionary Model operas – They were Peking style operas but with revolutionary themes. After the Cultural Revolution when China opened up again to the West, Western opera started to come into China, but even now I think that people are slowly, slowly getting to know Puccini’s and Verdi’s operas. It’s a teenage stage, for Western opera.

    Contemporary opera is unusual. There are very few, written, but it is possible. Chinese traditional opera is rooted in China for so many thousand years, but it is a diminishing genre, I should say. The young people nowadays don’t really go to traditional Chinese. So that’s another reason why I wanted to take on this task of doing Paradise Interrupted, to infuse the Kunqu opera tradition and voice into contemporary opera.

    What we created is an opera that audiences of different ages can come and enjoy, and audiences from different cultures can come to see it. Instead of seeing it as a Chinese antique, in our case it is a new breeding, a newly created production. I hope that one day we can bring this back to China and can draw more audiences to see our opera and also for them to really rediscover or fall in love again with Kunqu opera.

    OL - Please describe to us the musical training in China. What opportunities are available there to learn your trade?

    HR – In my own case my father is a composer, so I was born in a musical environment. I started playing the piano at a very young age. My father sent me to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music when I was 12 to state in the pre-college division. The training is very good, and mainly Western-style training. Classical music in China is blooming, and more and more young kids are taking on piano and violin lessons. More singers and obviously more composers as well are coming out from China so they are now experiencing classical music.

    The hope is that more and more people will graduate from classical music and will pass Romantic music and get into contemporary music and contemporary art. They will be more up to date to what the music of today is. I think it is a very encouraging environment, in China.

    OL - In your particular case, what made you come to train in the United States? How did your American training influence your music?

    HR – I studied in Shanghai for six years, and my teacher who is my mentor, encouraged me to come to the West. He said to me “as a composer you need to have an international environment and ambition to learn what is new.” At that time I entered a competition for young composers held by the Oberlin College, and I won first prize. They invited me for the premiere of my piece.

    So I came to visit the school and hear my piece, and I fell in love with the College, and decided to stay to do my undergraduate studies at Oberlin. So that was my first step and first journey, coming to America. I enjoyed the environment in this country where I can freely create whatever I want, and also have the audience to really understand and appreciate what I write. There is a great, great new music scene, here.

    OL - How are you as a person, in terms of personality traits? You said it is difficult to define your music style. Let’s see if it is difficult to define you as a person. [laughs]

    HR – As a person! [laughs] Well, I was born in the year of 1976, and that is the year of the fire dragon. So, my personality has fire in it, but also I’m a libra! [laughs]. I like to keep a good balance in everything. I have very private and very calm moments and I also have very fiery and very energetic moments as well. Maybe not much in-between, so I always switch on and off. [laughs]

    OL - What do you like to do in addition to music?

    HR – I personally love to travel and I go to places that have a lot of rich history. I love art in general. When I go to visit a city with a lot of history, intentionally I don’t want to bring a map with me. I just want to get lost, walk around, wander around, and just go to places where not a lot of tourists like to go. Because for me, being a composer, I can find inspiration in any unexpected way, and any unexpected situation and corner. It comes. You can’t seek it. It will come to you.

    Sometimes I had inspiration come to me like a broken water fountain – the water keeps flowing and you can’t stop it. So even if I’m so tired at night, I have to stay up and write whatever came to me. Sometimes it is so dry, like in the desert; nothing comes to me, I look everywhere and I don’t have any inspiration. I want to prey for the God of Inspiration to keep coming to me and keep being generous to me, and let me take in was is given to me, and use it in every best possible way to honor whatever is given to me. [laughs]

    OL – That was a really interesting interview. I liked it very much.

    HR – I’m glad you liked it.

    OL – Anything else you want to add?

    HR – Ah… well, I do want to say, opera, no matter what you call this genre, is a breathing and living creation, and I’d love to encourage more people to come and see opera, because it is very challenging and very difficult genre not only for the artists like the composer or librettist to put together, but also for companies and festivals to produce and create. It is something people have to believe in. But it only lives in the moment. You can’t really see a DVD or listen to a recording to revisit that moment. It’s something you have to see live. And I think that’s what makes opera more special. You have to hear it live, see it live, experience it live. What I want to tell your readers is, do give opera a chance. Come and experience the magic of opera. It’s something we work so hard to create, and we hope it will make a difference in your life, no matter who you are or where you are.

    OL – Very nice. How old are you?

    HR – I want to say 28 but I’m 38. [laughs]

    OL – 38? You look much younger than that!

    HR – Oh, thank you! I ought to say, I feel much younger than that, also! But you know, as a composer I feel like I’m a baby. I’m just curious about everything. But it is a good age. I still have energy, and while I can still be creative, I want to write as much as I can. So, I’m very young.

    OL – Very nice. Thank you so much.


    Let's listen to the composer's music. Even though this clip features a performance that was far less visually stunning than the one in Charleston, we do have fragments of the music:

    Here is the concert the composer believes is the best introduction to his music, Yueh Fei, in two parts


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