Photo: Huang Ruo at Asia Society (GetClassical)
As a preview to its upcoming American premiere, composer Huang Ruo and the creative team of the Santa Fe Opera introduced excerpts of the strikingly lyrical, modernist opera sung in Mandarin and Cantonese dialects at the Asia Society on December 2nd.

In a panel discussion moderated by journalist Ken Smith and featured composer Huang Ruo, stage director James Robinson, costume designer James Schuette, choreographer Sean Curran, and conductor Carolyn Kuan discussed the inherent challenges of production; creative solutions to these struggles were touched on from the varying perspectives of all the collaborative artists involved.

“The opera creates a metaphor for the historic figure Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, founding father of modern China…” explains Ken Smith.

Most of the opera’s content is based on actual historical material, such as Yat-Sen’s political speeches, letters, and photographs. Yet his politically revolutionary status serves only as the colorful background of an unfolding personal drama, set in three acts each of which depicts differing locations: “It is rather the personal story of his life I wanted to show, which is rather unknown,” says Ruo, “his passionate and revolutionary personality.” And it is the deeply gripping artistic expressiveness of such delicate arias, like Lu Muzhen’s (Yat-Sen’s abandoned first wife) lament, that portray a perception of the human truism, personal faith, sorrow, and fulfillment that characterize Yat-Sen’s personal story. “These bound feet cannot keep up with the times,” sings Lu Muzhen, bringing the compelling essence of the impact of historic change within Chinese civilization into direct contact with the story of her own personal transformation, sensitively universalized through the heroes and victims of the saga.

In traditional Chinese opera – and there is a variety of opera styles – characters are symbolized explicitly by their outward appearance; Ruo explains how through this unambiguous illustration, one need not know the story to recognize the personality of the participants on stage. Ruo connects a musical introduction to the appearance of each character, comparable to Wagner’s ‘leitmotifs,’ using these musical phrases to establish an aesthetic association between musical theme and the characters’ dramatic portrayals. “You will hear the character before you see him or her on stage,” he concludes. Photo: Zhou Yi, pipa and gu qin (GetClassical)

The production of the opera has an interesting angle. Commissioned by the Opera Hong Kong in 2011, it was premiered at the Hong Kong Culture Centre Theatre in October of 2011 with the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, establishing the first ever Western-style opera accompanied by an entire orchestra of Chinese, traditional instruments. There are two versions of the score in existence, which are wittily distinguished by Ruo: “These are not two entirely different scores, but different instrumental versions of the same. One for exclusively Chinese instrumentation, the other adapted for Western ones, in addition with Chinese traditional instruments. I would describe this as a mirrored transcription: You hold up a mirror and one can recognize its own reflection.” Photo: Huang Ruo (GetClassical)
Additionally the score underwent textual revision, eliminating portions of spoken lines in order to provide a more accomplished display of Ruo’s Dimensionalism, his applied method of composition. Certainly the production also heeded the patience of a Western audience, not fluent in Cantonese dialects. Ruo describes this way of creating and perceiving music as allowing for multiple layers of musical and textual meaning: “I was not intentionally trying to create a stylistic fusion. I just looked at the libretto and considered what it should sound like and how each line should be interpreted. Looking back, I do not see it as presenting neither a strictly Western operatic nor a Chinese folk style. Even though I wrote for Western-style voice types, singing Chinese words makes it a unique combination.”
The opera’s westernized version’s first act received a preview in 2011 at New York City Opera.

In January 2012, Ruo conducted an ensemble he founded called FIRE in a concert version of excerpts at Le Poisson Rouge, followed by a performance at Asia Society in May 2012.

This December’s sneak peek of Santa Fe’s planned full production of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen made clear what an extraordinary undertaking Ruo’s masterpiece represents in both the US and China. The concert in Hong Kong marked the first performance of a contemporary opera by a full orchestra of traditional Chinese instruments. “I was motivated to write this opera, hoping to add to a small body of contemporary opera written in Chinese to date. After all, Chinese is a very rhythmic and musical language. Although China has a long, rich history of traditional operas, this tradition is becoming endangered with diminishing audiences and lack of new repertoire,” says Ruo, expressing a concern that is certainly reflected internationally.

Dr. Sun Yat-sen will be performed in its entirety at the Santa Fe Opera on July 26th, 2014.
Ilona Oltuski
Excerpts from ‘ Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’  Huang Ruo: Excerpts from Sun Yat-Sen (opera)