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Tuesday, July 23, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Opera

Cultural Revolution colors Bright Sheng's art

The Associated Press

SALINE, Mich. — Finished score sheets sit on Bright Sheng's piano, the smudge marks from his pencil eraser visible around the notes.

Sheng taps the keys. It hasn't been a good day, he says. He's only written a few measures.

The Chinese-born composer is being a little hard on himself. He is, after all, working on what he calls his "biggest ambition," an opera about the life of the late Jiang Qing, notorious wife of the Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong. Sheng plans to finish the opera this summer for a July 2003 opening.

Sheng's name doesn't have the popular recognition of other Asian musicians such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, or Tan Dun, who wrote the score for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." But he has been a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in music, and last year he won a "genius grant" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He has also conducted the Seattle Symphony and served as its composer-in-residence.

Many influences

The University of Michigan music professor has written more than 50 compositions, two of them operas. His 1988 orchestral piece, "H'un (Lacerations): In Memoriam 1966-76," about China's oppressive Cultural Revolution, received glowing reviews and put him on the composing map.

Sheng describes his music as having "one foot in the tradition and one foot in the future." Because of his Chinese heritage, he says he embraces Asian classical and folk traditions as well as Western classical music. But he doesn't shy away from modern styles.

"We all of sudden have so many more meanings to expose ourselves (to), so it would be silly to limit yourself in one thing," Sheng says. "Like you're going into a big lab. You see all the results people have done, so you just take this, take that for your compositions."

In other words, there's no mold.

"Ultimately it's how good the compositions are," he says. "Sometimes I just write whatever comes out, and you know it's not something that I can change."

William Mason, general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, says Sheng is "generally regarded as one of the most gifted composers of his generation."

"There's a lot of compassion and feeling in his work," says Mason, who was with the Lyric Opera when Sheng was a composer-in-residence from 1989-1992. Sheng also wrote his first opera, "The Song of Majnun," during that time.

Growing up 'an enemy'

Sheng, 46, was born in Shanghai during Mao's reign, and his family was distrusted by the communists in part because his grandfather was a landowner.

"So I was an enemy growing up. The Red Guards would come to our house every day, any time they want, beat you up, search."

In 1966, Mao started the Cultural Revolution to cleanse China of all bourgeois remnants, causing violent political strife. Militant youths organized as Red Guards searched homes and destroyed or confiscated antiques, religious artifacts and foreign books.

Sheng first tinkered with composing while performing with a folk troupe during the revolution. He also wrote some piano pieces while at the Shanghai Conservatory, which he attended after Mao's death in 1976.

"I felt I had things to say within me," Sheng says.

Sheng came to the United States in 1982. He later earned a doctor of musical arts degree from Columbia University and began teaching at the University of Michigan in 1995.

Sheng's new opera, his first full-length, is titled "Madame Mao." Like "H'un," it draws on Sheng's own experiences during the Cultural Revolution.

The story is a complicated one that Sheng simplified to turn it into an opera: Jiang Qing grew up in poverty, became an actress, met and married Mao, was arrested, imprisoned and eventually committed suicide.

"We put it very simply with oppression and revenge," Sheng says. "The first half of the opera we show how she was being oppressed, wronged all her life, and then she became this monster."

Gripping drama

As an actress, Jiang once played the role of Nora in Ibsen's "A Doll's House." In that play, Nora surprises everyone by announcing she is leaving her husband. Sheng says he plays on that by showing how Jiang surprises everyone by turning into a monster.

Jiang oversaw the persecution and imprisonment or exile of Mao's rivals and people she disliked. But shortly after Mao died, she was arrested.

She committed suicide in 1991.

Richard Gaddes, general director of the Santa Fe Opera, which commissioned the opera, says he thinks it is "gripping."

"I think audiences will respond very, very positively," Gaddes says. The opera opens July 26, 2003.

"His great sense of drama — his ability to express drama through music. ... A lot of people who write operas simply don't," Gaddes says.

"He's not just obsessed with the music, he cares very deeply about how the drama helps the music."

Sheng says what people take from his music is up to them.

"Music takes you to a room that no other art form can reach," he says. "Each person's experience is different. That is not something you can put your fingers (on), pinpoint it. ...

"That's why music is so wonderful. We need music. It doesn't exist in any other form."

Opera takes it one step further, he says. "You have visual, and the literature, which is the theater, and the music all in one, all clicking. That is an incredible experience."

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