Ming Cho Lee: Set­ting the stage for a legend

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS AMERICAS -

Ming Cho Lee said that as a Chi­nese Amer­i­can, his Chi­nese-ness has been rooted in his blood since birth.

StageDe­sign­byMingCho Lee, a ret­ro­spec­tive ex­hi­bi­tion of cel­e­brated and in­flu­en­tial set de­signer Ming Cho Lee, is on view at the Mu­seum of Chi­nese in Amer­ica (MOCA) in New York through Sept 11.

As a re­cip­i­ent of the Na­tional Medal of Arts in 2002 and a Tony Award for Life­time Achieve­ment in 2013, Lee is one of the most ac­claimed liv­ing set de­sign­ers in the world.

With more than 40 orig­i­nal ma­que­ttes on view for the first time in New York since the 1990s, the ex­hi­bi­tion ex­plores the evo­lu­tion of his work in theater, opera and dance from his ground­break­ing ab­stract sets of the 1960s and 1970s, to his more re­cent hard-edge treat­ments.

The show was de­vel­oped by Lee him­self with his wife Betsy Lee and the New York Pub­lic Li­brary for the Per­form­ing Arts in 1995 and has since trav­eled over­seas, ap­pear­ing in Shang­hai, Tai­wan and other venues.

“Ming Cho Lee has paved the way for gen­er­a­tions of set de­sign­ers and MOCA is hon­ored to bring this ret­ro­spec­tive to New York City — the cen­ter of the global theater com­mu­nity,” said MOCA Pres­i­dent Nancy Yao Maas­bach.

Maas­bach said the ex­hi­bi­tion presents an un­matched body of work, in line with MOCA’s tra­di­tion of high­light­ing cul­tural pioneers.

“His work draws upon two cul­tures, his child­hood in China and his sub­se­quent im­mer­sion in Amer­i­can art,” critic Mel Gus­sow wrote in the April 1995 is­sue of Amer­i­can Theatre mag­a­zine.

Lee was born in Shang­hai in the 1930s. His mother, Tang Ing, was a fa­mous beauty and ac­com­plished ac­tress. His fa­ther, Lee Teu Fa, was a Yale-ed­u­cated busi­ness­man. With his mother’s en­cour­age­ment, Lee stud­ied land­scape paint­ing with a mas­ter Chi­nese land­scape painter be­fore com­ing to the United States. It is com­monly un­der­stood that the skills and tech­niques he gained as an ap­pren­tice in China served as the ba­sis for his iconic ap­proach to the US stage.

At­tend­ing Oc­ci­den­tal Col­lege in Los Angeles at the age of 19, Lee ma­jored in speech and acted in stu­dent plays.

Lee re­called he was one of only three Chi­nese stu­dents on cam­pus. De­spite his atyp­i­cal back­ground dur­ing the pe­riod of ex­clu­sion in Amer­ica, Lee never felt racism.

In his ju­nior year, Lee turned to study­ing de­sign and con­tin­ued that in­ter­est at UCLA, where he com­ple­mented his tra­di­tional Chi­nese craft with stud­ies of Amer­i­can art.

In the 1950s, with the en­cour­age­ment of light­ing ex­pert Ed­ward Kook, Lee moved to New York, where he ap­pren­ticed with Jo Mielziner, the dean of set de­sign at the time. Dur­ing this time, “Lee de­vel­oped his own more sculp­tural style and found self-def­i­ni­tion in the clean bold lines of his stage work,” Gus­sow wrote.

Lee has been a free­lance de­signer through­out his ca­reer. His most steady em­ploy­ment was as prin­ci­pal de­signer for the New York Shake­speare Fes­ti­val for 11 years. Dur­ing that stint, he did 22 stage de­signs for Shake­spearean plays as well as con­tem­po­rary works.

Lee has de­signed sets for the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera, New York City Opera, Covent Gar­den in Lon­don and many other ma­jor opera houses around the world.

For more than 65 years, Lee has served on the fac­ulty at the Yale School of Drama, in­clud­ing as the co-chair of the de­sign depart­ment. Even though he is no longer do­ing de­sign work, he still teaches twice a week in New Haven.

For Lee, de­sign is a process of dis­til­la­tion and the most com­mon thing he says to his stu­dents is: “You don’t need it.”

“In his de­sign­ing, Lee is the en­emy of dec­o­ra­tion, of ef­fects, of any­thing that de­tracts or dis­tracts from the drama,” Gus­sow wrote in the ar­ti­cle.

Lee con­fessed that he can’t speak pu­tonghua (Man­darin) and re­mem­bers only Shang­hainese di­alect, but “no­body un­der­stood what I was talk­ing about in Shang­hai, be­cause ev­ery­body speaks ‘ pu­tonghua’,” he said with a laugh.

“You can­not es­cape from who you are,” he said. “And there are a lot of things that, even though you are not aware of it, it turned out there was a Chi­nese-ness sneak­ing in.”

Ming Cho Lee has paved the way for gen­er­a­tions of set de­sign­ers.”


Ming Cho Lee (front) browses the ex­hi­bi­tion of his work at the Mu­seum of Chi­nese in Amer­ica (MOCA) in New York with Herb Tam (right), MOCA’s curator and di­rec­tor of exhibitions, on April 28.

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