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(L to R): Hao Jiang Tian (Li Bai) and Chi Liming (Wine) Photo by Mark Kiryluk
27 Aug 2007

New opera from China crosses national boundaries

It’s clear today that China’s Cultural Revolution has led to a cultural revolution that — in music at least — has made the country’s artists frontrunners on the international scene.

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


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 Wenjing’s “Poet Li Bai,” premiered at Colorado’s Central City Opera on July 7. Tian’s musician parents were sentenced to “reeducation,” while he was sent to work in a factory. His piano teacher went to prison. He recalls smashing the family’s 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 “Li Bai” — dramatist Xu Ying, director Lin Zhaohua and designer Yi Liming — are all of this same generation, and — given this background — their dedication to the “new wave” 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 — Dun, Sheng and Chen Yi have long been residents of this country — one senses an immense creative energy — indeed, a fervor — 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 — “First Emperor” at the Met in December and “Tea: A Mirror of Soul” on stage in Santa Fe later this summer, these composers are now dominant figures in America’s opera houses. (Sheng’s “Madame Mao” was premiered in Santa Fe in 2003, after his “Silver River” had made the rounds of summer festivals.) The Central City premiere, beyond doubt the highlight of the company’s 75th anniversary season, left a capacity audience stunned both by the beauty and the dramatic impact of Guo’s 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 — 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 — an inner dialogue largely with his Muses Wine and Moon — as if he had been waiting for this role his entire mature life. Since “Poet” is billed as “a Western opera sung in Chinese,” it seemed appropriate to ask just how Western — or Eastern — the work is. “Definitions are not important!” Guo said in an interview, emphatically waving the question aside. “Descriptions say nothing about the work!” He went on to stress that although much in “Poet” 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 added.

Guo draws a sharp line between the fusion of East and West encountered in good contemporary Chinese music and the “simple Westernization” in which some engage. This, he stresses, leads to kitsch or “silly sweetness” — to a boring compromise where everything is tasteless. He compares it with the mediocre food served at many “Chinese” 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 Argentina’s Oswaldo Golojov is doing today. “Different races together make a more beautiful baby,” Guo says.

Works by Dun and Sheng have been performed thus far in English, and the original libretto of “Poet” was in that language as well. Guo, however, insisted that the work be sung in Chinese — in part because of constant references to — and quotations from — Li Bai’s verse.The language of the poet’s 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. (“Poet” calls for an orchestra of 50, plus a single Chinese bamboo flute.)

Dutch conductor Spanjaard, on the CCO podium for “Poet,” has worked with Guo on various endeavors since 1991. He is especially impressed by the composer’s ability to make gloomy subject matter attractive. Indeed, the conductor speaks of an “excitement of gloom” in these scores and of Guo’s ability to create “an electric atmosphere” through his incredible command of orchestration. And CCO general and artistic director Pelham (“Pat”) Pearce notes how impressed he is by Guo’s writing for voice in other works. “He knows how to let the voice soar,” Pearce says. “His vocal lines are a gift to singers.” 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 Qihu’s singing of the role one senses the cold edge of absolute power that was the standard in Mao’s China.

The genesis of “Poet” 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 Liao’s 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 country’s Silk Road to gain a “feel” for the landscape where Li Bai had roamed on horseback. To insure the success — 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 “Poet” before — not even in other works by Guo.

Guo’s cross-fertilization of East and West has resulted in a largely lyrically and totally tonal idiom — new, personal and original — that combines both traditions in mesmerizing music. Long melodic lines resist tonic-dominant “pull” and hover hauntingly over the story of the ill-fated poet who enjoys the respect among Chinese that Anglo-Saxons lavish on Shakespeare. “When I write, I really don’t want to reflect what happened a thousand years ago,” the composer commented. “I don’t know how it sounded — nobody knows how it sounded. “I write entirely for the audience of today.”

Supporting roles in “Poet” were magnificently sung by Li Bai’s Muses, tenor Chi Limig (Wine) and soprano Ying Huang (Moon). Special praise was earned by a chorus of 30 from the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music, impeccably trained by Catherine Sailer.“Poet,” Guo summarizes, underscoring the universality of the work, “is the story of the hopes and fears of a legendary man who loved life with a passion to the very end.” 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 “Poet Li Bi” 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 “Das Lied von der Erde.”

Wes Blomster

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