<em>Dr. Sun Yat-sen</em> at Santa Fe Opera

Review: Dr. Sun Yat-sen | Santa Fe Opera

East Meets West

At Santa Fe Opera, the American premiere of Huang Ruo's Dr. Sun Yat-sen, which effectively blends Western and Eastern music, feels like a major new work.

published Friday, August 15, 2014

Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera
Dr. Sun Yat-sen at Santa Fe Opera

Santa Fe, N.M. — We may never know exactly what went on before the American premiere of Dr. Sun Yat-sen at the Santa Fe Opera this summer. Perhaps the long arm of the Chinese government reached out to pluck Warren Mok out of the leading role in the production of the opera he commissioned. Maybe he suddenly remembered some previous engagements and returned to China just weeks before the opening in Santa Fe.

Very understandable, of course. How easy it would be to forget an appointment in China, made months ago, and double-book yourself in such a manner. 


It is not like the Chinese government appreciated this opera about the revolutionary who became the founding father of the Republic of China anyway. On the contrary, every roadblock possible was put in its way to the stage. Mok, who is also the Artistic Director of Opera Hong Kong, had the Beijing world premiere canceled at the last minute—postponed indefinitely—and other performances met the same fate. A version with only Chinese instruments was finally mounted in Hong Kong, but the Santa Fe performances are the real premiere with the original Western orchestration. 

Perhaps one of the problems the Chinese government had with the opera is that it is not about his work as a revolutionary, except tangentially. But it is odd considering that the opera concerns itself with Dr. Sen’s love affair and marriage to Soon Ching-ling, who the Communists adore. 

She was born of a prominent family and educated in the west. When she graduated from Wesleyan College in Georgia, Rosamonde Chung-ling Soong, her Western name, was the name on her diploma. She was beautiful, intelligent and 26 years younger than Dr. Sen (and his second wife). While there was a whiff of scandal in that, since he wasn’t divorced at the time, it hardly seems worthy of the fuss the government made about the opera.

Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera
Dr. Sun Yat-sen at Santa Fe Opera

After Dr. Sun’s death, Soon Ching-ling went on to great fame in her own right. By backing the Communists, she ended up on the winning side, unlike her sister, who married Chiang Kai-shek (oops). Soon Ching-ling became one of six vice-chairs of the Central People’s Government and a vice-president of the Peoples Republic of China. Honors, such as the Stalin Peace Prize in 1950, continued to be bestowed right up until shorty before her death when she was named Honorary President of the People's Republic of China, a title created for her alone.

Huang Ruo, a Chinese-born composer who makes his residence in New York City and was trained initially by his composer father, wrote the opera. His official schooling started at the Shanghai Conservatory and later at Oberlin College and Juilliard. This combination of training in Chinese and Western music is evident throughout his opera. The libretto is by Candace Mui-ngam Chong, a well-known playwright and translator, also shows the multicultural influences. 

There is so much to say about Huang ‘s opera that perhaps an initial assessment would be helpful. This is a magnificent work that is very theatrical, as a good opera should be. But is also a fascinating amalgamation of musical styles from traditional Chinese music to the pounding rhythmic chords of the minimalist’s, flavored with jazz and a hint of good ‘ol rock ‘n’ roll. Yet, nothing is quoted so directly that you can point to a section and declare its musical parentage. While the orchestra is mostly rhythmic, vocal phrases of great beauty soar above the undercurrent. 

Chinese vocal ornamentation is used throughout the score. Huang carefully notated it out to insure authenticity. In a recent email exchange, he explained: “I wrote out all the ornamentations." 

Mandarin is a tonal language that has many ups and downs in inflection. It is also a very dramatic language as it is character based, but it is harder to make it sound lyrical. Huang’s technique is to build bridges between words, to smooth the distance between characters, to create cursive lyrical lines. These bridges become an essential part of the vocal line as they deepen the meaning of the words. 

Huang uses a number of Chinese instruments—pipa, sheng, dizi, guqin and guanzi—in the Western orchestration. 

Wu Man, born in 1961, is a virtuoso pipa (a four-stringed fretted instrument that is similar to the lute) player who has caught the interest of modern concert audiences. 

Sheng is a reed instrument that is made up of a number of different pipes that dates back to the seventh century BCE. Modern instruments have 32 pipes and can play chords and harmony. A dizi is like a transverse flute, usually made of bamboo. Over the centuries, it went from an instrument that could only play in whole tones and three-quarter tone intervals. Modern dizi, called xindi, is fully chromatic. 

Guqin is an ancient Chinese instrument. It is in the cello range and is plucked. Modern instruments have five strings but more ancient ones had as many as 10.  Slides and harmonics are also part of its unique sound. Huang uses this to great effect in the wedding scene between Ching-ling and Yat-sen in Act Two. The guqin is normally used by the ancient Chinese people to find a soul mate. Its sound is normally quiet, and not meant to be performed or heard in public. So the saying goes that only a true soul mate can hear the sound and will therefore find the player, with the only the sound as guidance. In this context, the use of the guqin under the wedding oath by Yat-sen and Ching-ling symbolizes the pure love they share: no gifts or other witnesses. 

Guanzi is a double reed instrument that is somewhere between an oboe and a clarinet. It comes in various sizes and registers. Huang uses this in Ching-ling's "lost child aria" in Act Three. The plaintive quality of the Guanzi perfectly matches Ching-ling’s grief at the loss of her child and the realization that she would never be able to have another. The guanzi is another ancient instrument that was normally used for ritual purposes. Throughout history people have played it when they wanted to express their sorrow or loneliness, making its introduction here particularly poignant. 

Two very busy percussionists play a collection of instruments, such as the wind-machine, waterphon, Chinese opera gongs, Chinese crash cymbals, five Indonesian button gongs, ratchet, temple wood-block, bass drum and other drums. 

Chinese instruments are grouped into eight classifications (called bayin) according to the materials of which they are made: gourd, earthenware, hide, wood, stone, bronze, silk and bamboo. In our interview, Huang said that rather than make an effort to use them all, he doesn’t really use things directly. He takes the concept of the thing and then transforms it. Chinese audiences think that it doesn’t sound Chinese while Western audiences say that it isn’t Western either. It is something that integrates both and goes beyond.

Perhaps this is another reflection of what 21st century opera is about—inclusion with the genre becoming broader and more integrated with other cultures and musical languages.

Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera
Dr. Sun Yat-sen at Santa Fe Opera

Chong’s libretto also reflects the historical elements of the Peking Opera, which is a very stylized and tradition-bound type of theater. There are certain stock characters that appear in them all, much like the Western commedia dell’arte.

Sheng (生) is the main male role. Here, that would be Dr. Sun Yat-sen. Stepping in at the last minute the young American tenor Joseph Dennis did a fine job. He has clear high notes that hint at a career as a spinto tenor. The word around the opera was that, as an understudy, he arrived with the role completely memorized—and both languages, Mandarin and Cantonese, mastered. He didn’t look very Chinese, however, which was either the fault of make-up or a directorial decision. 

Jing (净) is a second male role that is a very forceful character and able to exaggerate gestures. Here, that is the role of Charlie Soong (Chinese bass Gong Dong-Jian), Ching-ling’s father. He is opposed to her marriage and very animated about it. He has a beautifully deep voice and is able to give the role all of the fury required without becoming a caricature. 

The dan roles (旦) are all of the females, originally played by men (as in Shakespeare), but there are subdivisions of dan. The qingyi are the young women that are virtuous and admirable—perfect for the role of Soong Ching-ling, played by Corinne Winters. She is a lyric soprano who is beginning to make her mark on the international stage. In this role, she displays a truly beautiful and limpid sound with enough strength to allow her to sing a wide repertoire from Debussy’s Mélisande to Anne Trulove in Stravinsky’s The Rake's Progress

The dan that are old women are called laodan and in this opera that is assigned to the role of Lu Mu-zhen, Sun's first wife. She is played by soprano Rebecca Witty, who has a voice with great power and a sound that could propel her into the Wagnerian repertoire. The most remarkable detail about her performance is her mastery of cai qiao, or "false foot." This is a movement technique that imitates the gait of women with bound feet. 

Witty’s performance is particularly moving in the scene where she grants Dr. Sun a divorce so that he can marry Soong Ching-ling. Huang writes some of his most touching music for this scene and Witty breaks your heart with it. Her musings about how in her next life she will marry an ordinary man who comes home every night is a familiar complaint for anyone who is not famous and married to someone who is. 

The role of Ni Kwei-Tseng, Charlie Soong's Wife, probably would be classified as a huashqa. This a role that appeared later in the development of the Peking Opera and is a gingyi that shows more spirit.  That would certainly describe the performance of mezzo-soprano Mary Ann McCormick, who recently celebrated her 100th performance at the Metropolitan Opera in roles large and small. 

Others in the cast also do a fine job. They are: Mr. Umeya, a Japanese friend of Sun, played by Chen Ye Yuan; and his wife Mrs. Umeya, played by Katherine Carroll. 

James Robinson excels as the director, keeping the stage movement always interesting without becoming busy. Choreographer Sean Curran has a lot to do. Much of the connecting tissue of the opera is in his able hands as dancers pantomime the story elements. 

The bamboo scaffolding that serves for a set, designed by Allen Moyer, creates a multi-level playing area that is very useful in creating the many different scenes. Minimal furnishings and props help create the illusions. In some ways, this type of set harkens back to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Costumes by James Schuette work well in combining Western and traditional garb, as the situation demands. 

Conductor Carolyn Kuan is a marvel. This is very complex score with constant meter changes. Her clear beat makes it much easier for the orchestra to follow. One distracting element of her technique is her penchant for constantly throwing cues to the stage, sometimes even in the pauses in the phrases. It is doubtful that the cast needs such lavish attention.  That said, no one could have a complaint about her performance of this difficult score. Climaxes are forcefully driven and she saves the top dynamics for the moments where they are most needed. 

Dr. Sun Yat-sen is a major opera that should find a permanent place in the repertoire. The difficulty of singing in Mandarin and Cantonese presents a challenge to singers and finding players for the Chinese instruments can send the orchestra contractor scampering. But Santa Fe was able to overcome these problems successfully and soon there will be a cadre of singers who know the roles. 

Ever since Debussy encountered the Gamelan orchestra at the Paris Exhibition, there has been great interest in the music of Asia. We have seen some attempts at fusing these elements, such as Sondheim’s Japanese foray with Pacific Overtures and Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River, a Christianization of the Japanese Noh play Sumidagawa by the 14th century writer Juro Motomasa. Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado is a send-up of this trend, in which the characters are very British and merely dressed as Japanese. 

With Dr. Sun Yat-sen, Huang creates something new. It is a real fusion of East and West and as such, it even exists in two versions—one for a Chinese orchestra with the other for a Western one augmented by some Chinese instruments. Future generations may well look back at Dr. Sun Yat-sen as a seminal work that launched a worldwide movement that results in music that is neither West nor East, but something completely new—not to mention wonderful.


» Other reviews from the 2014 Santa Fe Opera season:

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East Meets West
At Santa Fe Opera, the American premiere of Huang Ruo's Dr. Sun Yat-sen, which effectively blends Western and Eastern music, feels like a major new work.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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