The story is old - the action takes place in the Tang Dynasty over 1,000 years ago and was first immortalized on stage by the poet Bai Pu (白樸, 1226-1306) during the Yuan Dynasty - but the form it will take in Chen May-tchi's (陳玫琪) opera The Firmiana Rain (梧桐雨), which will have its world premiere at the National Theater Taipei on Thursday, is avant-garde.
With a score that incorporates ancient Chinese music, a Western orchestra, a libretto in Mandarin, French and German, a Japanese director, a Taiwanese gezai opera (歌仔戲) performer and more, this Taiwan-Japan coproduction is billed as a "modern romantic opera."
The Firmiana Rain follows the grand romance between the Emperor Tang Xuanzong (唐玄宗) and the imperial concubine Lady Yang (楊貴妃), the resulting political upheaval and rebellion led by the general An Lu-shan (安祿山), and the death of Yang by her own hand (but at the ruler's insistence), as the only solution to the political crisis. The title refers to the sound of water dropping on the large leaves of the firmiana tree, which forms the backdrop to the emperor's thoughts as he reflects on the sacrifice he made for political expediency. Although it was Yang's nepotism and her family's corruption that was largely responsible for the crisis in the first place, this great betrayal has enshrined her as one of the great tragic heroines of Chinese literature.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF NTCH
While the basic story has been rendered by many of China's great poets, composer Chen's version has raised a few eyebrows.
Musically, the work is a continuation of Chen's interest in unconventional combinations. The score incorporates Chinese instruments such as the pipa (琵琶), a kind of Chinese lute, and the bamboo flute and references the music that would have been played at the court of the emperor. Chen drew inspiration from her studies of ancient music from the royal courts of China, Japan and Korea. A concert extract in 2002 for Showcasing American Composers won critical acclaim, and was responsible for the work being picked up for full production in Asia.
With this staged production, Chen's ambitions to transverse artistic divides are fully revealed. While this is still an opera in the Western tradition, The Firmiana Rain pushes many boundaries. Its libretto is primarily in Mandarin, but the formal scenes at the court are sung in French and the anger of the barbarian general An Lu-shan, when brought in chains before the emperor, is sung in German. "The Tang court was already a great melting pot," Chen said. "It was quite natural for members of the court to absorb influences from Asia Minor and India. China was already quite an international society. We have simply translated that into more modern terms."
With the involvement of Tang Mei-yun (唐美雲), one of Taiwan's best-known gezai opera singers and Liu Fu-hsueh (劉復學) of the National Gouguang Opera Company (國立國光劇團), the melting pot concept has been carried to an extreme in this current production.
The inclusion of these performers means that The Firmiana Rain is not only innovative in terms of Western opera, it also requires a high level of cooperation and tolerance for the demands of vastly different performance traditions.
In an interview with the Taipei Times, Tang said she had adjusted her regular performance style, most notably having to work to a predefined score. "There is much more physical movement in our style of performance," she said. "In Western opera, they [performers] focus more exclusively on the singing."
"With the traditional actors and actresses, usually they have to improvise a lot," Chen said. "It's really interesting to see performers from different traditions work together. We provide the structure, but they have the liberty to do their own thing."
"They come from totally different oral traditions and have an instinct about what they have to do. Once they get a feel for the music and the rhythm, they just do things very naturally," she added.
In the hectic rehearsals preceding the opening next week, everyone is still learning how best to work together. "It's all about opening up new horizons," said Tang, who is also an innovator in her own field.
To add to the difficulties, the coproduction sees soprano Kimiko Hata and baritone Kouichi Taira perform in the central roles of Xuanzong and Lady Yang, respectively, which required them to learn the libretto phonetically through months of intensive coaching.
Chen Wu-kang (陳武康), the show's choreographer and artistic director of M Dans (驫舞劇場), in an off-the-cuff comment during rehearsals, said that so many artistic boundaries had been crossed, so many conventions overturned, that he felt he could cast off all constraints in choreographing the dances for the show. "I felt that if it could be overturned, then we might as well," he said.
One issue that does stand out above all else is the way The Firmiana Rain sees Asians taking control of a Western operatic tradition.
"We Asians are doing an Asian story. It's not like Europeans are doing an Asian story (such as Turandot or Madame Butterfly). Hopefully this method is more first hand, instead of chinoiserie. ... The music itself has many elements, but it's a total integration and not a collage," Chen said.
Reflecting on his own work in opera, Sugao said: "I think the opera world is looking for a way to go. If you do only Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, you are getting nowhere. ... We need to create new operas such as this. I hope this will be successful in finding a new way for operas."
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