Be­hind cham­ber

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By LIA ZHU in San Fran­cisco li­azhu@chi­nadai­

Meet Bright Sheng, the com­poser who turned Dreamofthe RedCham­ber into an op­er­atic de­light.

“The suc­cess of an opera de­pends on it en­gag­ing the au­di­ence emo­tion­ally. I think we did our best and have some suc­cess,” said Bright Sheng, com­poser of the new opera Dream of the Red Cham­ber.

It’s a daunt­ing task to adapt the 18th cen­tury Chi­nese mas­ter­piece novel — which is twice as long as Tol­stoy’s War and Peace — into a two-hour Western opera.

“There was tremen­dous pres­sure — you need not only to de­liver the work, but also an ex­cel­lent work,” said Sheng, who has been im­mersed in the opera for the past two years.

The work has drawn me­dia buzz as well as wide at­ten­tion from the gen­eral pub­lic since it pre­miered on Sept 10 at the War Me­mo­rial Opera House in San Fran­cisco and Sheng is braced for the crit­ics.

“It’s im­pos­si­ble that ev­ery­one will like it,” he said. But the ap­plause, laugh­ter and tears from the au­di­ence prove that his goal of “en­gag­ing the au­di­ence emo­tion­ally” has been achieved.

Call­ing him­self a “dilet­tante redol­o­gist” (the term for an aca­demic de­voted to study­ing the clas­sic Chi­nese novel), Sheng said he first read Dream of the Red Cham­ber when he was 12 dur­ing the “cul­tural revo­lu­tion” (1966-76) and had read the novel ev­ery 10 years or so since, in­clud­ing two more times since get­ting the as­sign­ment to write the opera. Sheng said he took the job, com­mis­sioned by San Fran­cisco Opera, be­cause the epic novel is great op­er­atic ma­te­rial where mu­sic can play an es­sen­tial role. At the cen­tre of the plot is a love tri­an­gle in­volv­ing Bao Yu, a young aris­to­cratic fop, and his two fe­male cousins — beau­ti­ful soul­mate Dai Yu and his also beau­ti­ful fu­ture wife Bao Chai — against the back­drop of the fall of the il­lus­tri­ous Jia clan. “It’s the first novel in Chi­nese lit­er­ary his­tory that de­picts char­ac­ters’ de­tailed sen­ti­ments with ex­quis­ite writ­ing,” said Sheng.

The novel has been adapted count­less times into film, drama and twice into pop­u­lar TV se­ries in China. But un­like for­mats that rely on di­a­logue, opera has a lot more to do with ex­press­ing the char­ac­ters’ in­ner mono­logues or and ex­ag­ger­at­ing their un­con­strained feel­ings.

“Mu­sic car­ries emo­tions that words can­not ex­plain or say,” said Sheng.

One of the most emo­tion­ally charged scenes is the Burial

of the Flower Petals in Act II, when Dai Yu finds her world grow­ing bleaker as her health con­tin­ues to de­cline.

“When spring had fled and beauty is spent, who cares for the fallen petals?” she sings.

“My wife asked me why the frag­ile Dai Yu sings in such a loud voice,” said Sheng. “To me, it has to be loud cry­ing, beat­ing one’s bo­som as she looks to the heav­ens to ask these ques­tions.”

Sheng un­der­stands that the ex­pres­sion of hu­man emo­tions is a way to em­power a mu­si­cal work and his mu­sic is nat­u­rally in­flu­enced by his cross-cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ences.

Born in 1955 in Shang­hai into an in­tel­lec­tual fam­ily, he was ex­posed to tra­di­tional Chi­nese and Western mu­sic at a young age. His fa­ther, a ra­di­ol­o­gist, played the jinghu, a two-stringed fid­dle, for Pek­ing op­eras and taught Sheng to play. His mother, an en­gi­neer, stud­ied pi­ano grow­ing up and started giv­ing him lessons when he was 4-years-old.

But it was his ex­pe­ri­ence as a per­cus­sion­ist with an art troupe in Xin­ing, a re­mote north­west­ern re­gion in China, at the age of 16 that really made him in­ter­ested in com­pos­ing and got him fas­ci­nated with the sen­su­al­ity and the rough­ness of the local folk mu­sic.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Shang­hai Con­ser­va­tory of Mu­sic where he stud­ied com­po­si­tion from 1978-82, Sheng moved to New York City and con­tin­ued study­ing com­po­si­tion at Queens Col­lege, City Univer­sity of New York, earn­ing his MA in 1984.

Grounded in the Western clas­si­cal tra­di­tion, he has freely drawn on his her­itage for ma­te­rial and his score is marked with Chi­nese in­flu­ences.

He was pro­claimed by the MacArthur Foun­da­tion in 2001 as “an in­no­va­tive com­poser who merges di­verse mu­si­cal cus­toms in works that tran­scend con­ven­tional aes­thetic bound­aries.”

“I con­sider my­self 100 per­cent Chi­nese, and 100 per­cent Amer­i­can,” said Sheng. “I am thank­ful to be able to come up with some­thing that is au­then­ti­cally and deeply felt. You have to have a pro­found un­der­stand­ing of Chi­nese cul­ture, in this case, and Western cul­ture.”

Af­ter the world pre­miere in San Fran­cisco, the opera will be per­formed on March 17 and 18 at the Hong Kong Cul­tural Cen­ter as the fi­nale of the 45th an­nual Hong Kong Arts Fes­ti­val. Sheng said he was also in talks to take the opera to the Na­tional Cen­tre for the Per­form­ing Arts in Beijing, prob­a­bly in a Chi­nese-lan­guage ver­sion.

“This is the best I’ve done in terms of opera,” said Sheng. “But I still have a long way to go. I think I’ll get bet­ter with the next opera and the one af­ter that.”


A scene from DreamoftheRedCham­ber, TheBuri­aloftheFlow­erPe­tals. Bright Sheng (cen­ter), com­poser of the opera Dream of the Red Cham­ber, with Tim Yip (left), the pro­duc­tion de­signer and Stan Lai (right), the direc­tor.

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