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Thread: Huang Ruo's Paradise Interrupted at the Spoleto Festival USA

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Huang Ruo's Paradise Interrupted at the Spoleto Festival USA

    Paradise Interrupted, installation opera in one act, sung in Mandarin, with English supertitles
    Music by Opera Lively interviewee composer Huang Ruo
    Directed and Designed by Jennifer Wen Ma
    Libretto by Ji Chao, Jennifer Wen Ma, Huang Ruo, and Qian Yi, inspired by Tang Xian Zu's text

    World Premiere; as part of the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, SC - attended live by Opera Lively on May 31st, 2015 (last show of the run)

    A co-production of the Spoleto Festival USA, Lincoln Center Festival, and the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts; commissioned with the support of the Tang Family Foundation and sponsored by BMW Manufacturing Co.

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    Photo Julia Lynn Photography

    Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra conducted by John Kennedy, with three added Chinese musicians:
    Chen Bo playing the Sheng
    Hong-da Chin playing the Dizi
    Zhou Yi playing the Pipa

    Set Designer Matthew Hilyard
    Video Designer Guillermo Acevedo
    Projection Designer Austin Switser
    Lighting Designer Lihe Xiao
    Costume Designers (including wigs and masks) Melissa Kirgan, Xing-Zhen Chung-Hilyard
    Choreographer Gwen Welliver
    Scenic construction Spoleto Festival USA Scene Shop
    English translation Agnes Hsu-Tang


    Principal role:

    Woman - Opera Lively interviewee and Kunqu Opera specialist soprano Qian Yi

    Comprimario roles:

    The four male soloists alternatively play the elements Wind, Air, Earth, Fire; Firefly, Lover, Wolf, Light, and Four directions
    Male Soloist No. 1 - John Holiday, countertenor
    Male Soloist No. 2 - Joseph Dennis, tenor
    Male Soloist No. 3 - Joo Won Kang, baritone
    Male Soloist No. 4 - Ao Li, bass-baritone


    Something extraordinary happened in Charleston this spring. We were treated to the world premiere of a piece of rare impact and beauty, which took significant resources to put together in a rather fascinating way.

    It all started with Chinese-born, American-raised director and visual artist Jennifer Wen Ma, who reached world fame when she was the chief designer for visual and special effects for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. From one of her hanging installations in China, she started to think about the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Garden of Eden, and was also inspired by the 19-hour long Kunqu opera The Peony Pavillion, whose main female character Du Liniang wakes up from a vivid dream of love, and finds her existence bland by comparison, killing herself. Ms. Wen Ma then approached the great Chinese soprano Qing Yi, who had performed The Peony Pavillion in New York City for the Lincoln Center. Ms. Wen Ma who was thinking of a story in which a woman would also wake up from a paradisiacal dream (in an analogy with Eva's expulsion from Paradise) and would go into a journey of exploration that would end with her growth and blossoming, was further stimulated by Qian Yi's personal saga. The multi-talented soprano (who also writes for the theater, performs stage roles, and has been featured in movies including alongside Merryl Streep) had endured a gruesome artistic training from the young age of 10 in the rigid precepts of Kunqu opera, and upon immigrating to the United States and living in New York City, was experiencing a moment of personal growth and artistic freedom (as reported by the soprano in an exclusive interview with Opera Lively, coming soon). Ms. Wen Ma had a maquette of the black garden she was envisioning, and the project immediately captivated Qian Yi.

    The two women then approached eclectic contemporary Chinese-born, American-educated (Oberlin, Juilliard) composer Huang Ro of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen fame (his outstanding opera that premiered last year in Santa Fe). With Mr. Huang Ro being a specialist in cross-cultural music thanks to his ability to incorporate traditional Chinese music into Western idioms such as Jazz, the project started to take shape, given that the creators wanted to make an opera that wouldn't be entirely Eastern nor Western, and not a fusion either, but rather a juxtaposition and envelopment of these traditions, including a quintessential Western topic - the Judeo-Christian Garden of Eden, together with a truly Eastern artistic root, The Peony Pavillion with its hundreds of years of Kunqu style-opera. Chinese dramaturg Ji Chao was brought in for the libretto (to which all three original artists contributed) and the quartet started to meet often and intensely, brainstorming each part of the enterprise. The driving force according to Mr. Huang Ro (who told us so in another exclusive Opera Lively interview) remained Ms. Jennifer Wen Ma, with the other artists basing their work primarily on her set design.

    Rather than setting a libretto to music then adding the staging, this work proceeded the other way around, which is why the creators call it an "installation opera" - it's from Ms. Wen Ma's visual installation that all concepts have evolved.

    Mr. Huang Ro made full use of Ms. Qian Yi's exquisite artistry with her role being a full-blown Kunqu performance with the genre's traditional singing, sliding walking through the stage in small rapid steps, and body language with precise arm and hand posture. But then, he surrounded her with four male singers who perform within the Western operatic traditions in all registers of the male voice from bass-baritone to countertenor, which is doubled by the use of three Chinese instruments in the middle of a Western chamber orchestra, creating an aural landscape that matches the overlapping of the Eastern/Western theme to perfection. According to Mr. Huang Ro, the intention was to create a truly international piece of art.

    Not only the work crosses the continents horizontally in the East/West divide, but it also crosses vertically the timeline, with the use of extremely modern resources such as video projections that are interactive and change with the modulations of the soprano's voice, together with the initially bare and flat open stage of the centuries-old Kunqu operatic tradition, on top of which Ms. Wen Ma's striking sets grow out of nowhere (the props are made of laser-cut paper that unfolds up, and the tree that occupies the center of the stage literally grows from the ground with threads being pulled from a hole on the stage floor by strings that are anchored to the roof of the theater).

    I must say that the result was phenomenally accomplished: in one word, stunning, both visually and musically. Tone-painting from the orchestra is clear and well-linked to the events on the stage, helped in doing it by the ethereal sounds of Chinese instruments (one of them produces a sound similar to a harmonica). The ever changing projections and the beautiful transformations on the stage are visually captivating. Ms. Qian Yi's singing is out of this world, with a crystalline quality that is very pleasing to the ear, and the way the Western-singing voices intertwine with her vocal delivery is intriguing - for example, one of the Elements is supposed to guide her throughout the garden, and the task is assigned to the countertenor (a very good, outstanding even, John Holiday) who sings in Ms. Qian Yi's same tessitura and above her, and the two voices melt into each other to the point that the guide and the follower seem to fuse into one - a fabulous effect!

    The one aspect that might be constructed as criticism is the fact that the piece packs so much symbolism in its running time of 75 minutes, that a good chunk of it might be lost in translation both literally and figuratively for the Western audience. I was greatly helped by the fact that I discussed the opera at length with the composer and the soprano, the day before I saw it. Someone just coming in and sitting there to watch it while unaware of the various concepts guiding the action, might feel quite disoriented. It is the kind of work that one needs to study, before seeing it.

    Maybe sensing this difficulty, the Spoleto Festival USA provided good documentation in the playbill, with detailed explanations of the symbolism, including a very descriptive synopsis and short but inclusive and objective essays by Ms. Jennifer Wen Ma and Mr. Huang Ro themselves. She explains the directorial concepts, he explains the music, and the synopsis describes all symbolic elements. A couple sat on my right side and they didn't have the playbill. We started a conversation, and I mentioned to them - "you must read this before the show" - I passed my copy on to them (by then, I knew everything by heart, being very preoccupied with this opera for the last several hours). They read it, and at the end they were very thankful for the heads-up, which they described as having made all the difference.

    One might argue that a really good libretto should have provided the necessary clarification of the symbolism - but I don't think it is a valid concern, because some of the ideas are very specific of Chinese culture. For example, the opera ends with the elements of the garden being reduced to ashes and turned into a pool of ink that then taints the soprano's white gown. The idea is that now she is free to use the ink to paint and write her own story. Mr. Huang Ro explained to me the day before that black ink and the action of painting with it have a strong relationship with Chinese linguistic expression with their pictorial language so any Chinese person would immediately get the symbolism, but a Western person might feel a bit puzzled with the meaning of that pool of black ink.

    More complicated than that - the composer had already mentioned it to me and the soprano tried hard to demonstrate it to me for several minutes until she realized that it would be very hard for me to truly get it without being fluent in Mandarin - the Chinese language uses five different tones for each vowel sound, and each tone changes the meaning of the word being spoken. According to Ms. Qian Yi, part of the tradition of Kunqu singing is that they often transpose the tone of the vowels to the next level, creating a double layer of meaning. It is understood that the singing technique does that, and the listener needs to then mentally bring the sound down to the original tone to get the real meaning being conveyed - but it doesn't mean that the additional meaning should be entirely discarded. Mr. Huang Ruo said he indeed used this device in his vocal writing for Ms. Qian Yi - and whatever the English translator Ms. Agnes Hsu-Tang did for the supertitles, I'm quite sure we Westerners were not able to get the full poetry of the libretto that is contained in these multiple layers.

    So, very intriguing is the least one can say about this complex work, which I'm sure could be the subject of a scholarly dissertation. Regardless of our ability to get the full artistic expression that went into this piece, it was all hugely entertaining. All singers did very well (both the soprano and the countertenor earning A++ from me); it goes with the territory to call the sets and costumes A++ grade given Ms. Wen Ma's artistic vision; blocking with the interactions between the four soloists and the soprano was a thing of beauty; projections and lighting were strikingly appealing, and the sounds coming from the orchestra were fascinating.

    Given the co-commission, I'm assuming that this piece will eventually be presented in New York City and in China (a preview was already given last March at the Metropolitan Museum's Temple of Dendur in NYC), so stay tuned and don't miss this highly recommended show.

    Again, just like for the other two reviews I've authored, I must say that I'm extremely impressed with the high artistic level of these Spoleto Festival USA productions. I've been to several festivals of classical music, dance, and opera around the nation and abroad, and I've never been so stunned with what I saw in just one day and a half like I did this weekend in Charleston, which makes me crave a fuller fare next year. I'd love to spend seven to ten days exploring more offerings from the Spoleto, and I encourage everybody to plan for it and to support this phenomenal organization.

    Let's see some more pictures of this show, courtesy of the Spoleto Festival USA Press Department. All production pictures below are credited to Julia Lynn Photography and the last two are credited to Spoleto Festival USA, and they are all used with authorization:

    The Fireflies scene:

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    The Wolf Scene:

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    The White Flower scene (it symbolizes the Woman's second attempt at reaching paradise and fulfilling her desires, but she is trapped inside it until she breaks free):

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    The soprano Qian Yi

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    The Pool of Ink scene:

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    The composer Huang Ruo:

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    The director and designer Jennifer Wen Ma:

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    Stay tuned for the interesting interviews with the composer and the soprano, coming soon.
    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); June 3rd, 2015 at 11:38 AM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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