We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Friday, August 15, 2014


Joseph Dennis and Corinne Winters (photo by Ken Howard)

A rebellious young woman enrages her father by marrying his best friend who is already married. A nation emerges from centuries of feudalism and endures chaos on its lengthy pathway toward modernity.  Do these story lines sound familiar?  Do they sound like the stuff of opera?  Yes indeed!

The Santa Fe Opera is notable for tackling contemporary operas every season and this year's entry was  the very worthy Dr. Sun Yat-Sen by Huang Ruo who composed some very interesting music made dramatic by the liberal use of percussion.  Carolyn Kuan's conducting was exemplary.

Listening to the fine singing in Mandarin (and some in Cantonese) one could easily forget how much effort went into learning a language phonetically that is so very different from European languages. Mandarin is actually a "sung" language with words having different meanings depending upon the tones which rise and fall musically.  These tones must be sacrificed to sing on the proper pitch which makes it difficult, even for speakers of Mandarin, to understand.

Notwithstanding, the superb singers rose to the challenge.  Most astonishing was the performance of tenor Joseph Dennis as the good doctor himself.  Mr. Dennis is a member of the Apprentice Program and expected to serve as cover.  In a life-changing twist of fate, he wound up the star and garnered universal praise for his exceptionally fine portrayal.  He is onstage singing in nearly every scene and the music is difficult.  He sounded even stronger at the end than he did at the start.  Such are the benefits of a healthy young voice!

As his love interest Soong Ching-Ling, the superb soprano Corinne Winters gave a sensitive portrayal of a young woman who idealized this humble doctor who gave up everything to fight for China's future.  Her voice is nicely focused and has just the right amount of vibrato.  The love duet in Act II was meltingly tender and our favorite scene.

As Dr. Sun's first wife from a youthful arranged marriage we enjoyed soprano Rebecca Witty, another apprentice getting an opportunity for a breakthrough.  Her sacrifice was to grant Dr. Sun a divorce so he could marry Soong Ching-ling.  She has a touching aria in which she tells of being neglected by her husband who was so busy with politics and often in exile.  There was even a touch of humor when she told of her wish to marry an ordinary man in her next life.

As Charlie Soong, Ching-Ling's father, Gong Dong-Jian employed his bass well, both in friendship for Dr. Sun and later in rage when he felt betrayed.  As his wife, mezzo-soprano MaryAnn McCormick was a sympathetic character and we particularly enjoyed her scene with her daughter as papa lay dying. Charlie's reconciliation with his daughter was most touching.

The Japanese friends of Dr. Sun, Mr. and Mrs. Umeya, were portrayed by baritone Chen Ye Yuan and apprentice mezzo-soprano Katherine Carroll.

Should you know what was going on in China at the time that the United States and Europe were involved with The Great War, you would recognize how the libretto by Candace Chong simplified a very complicated story; there were long years of chaos and revolution as Dr. Sun labored to overthrow the Qing Dynasty and establish a democratic government.

But this is opera and such simplification is necessary. Sufficient it is to know that this humble idealist is still regarded as the father of his country, not only by the Chinese but also by the Taiwanese. The libretto was somewhat static with not much happening onstage. Director James Robinson did what he could to move the story along.

The set was designed by Allen Moyer with the outstanding element being bamboo scaffolding, symbolic of construction and change, erected on both sides and rear of the stage.  Other elements comprised a few pieces of period furniture.

The gorgeous costumes by James Schuette accurately depicted what was worn by both privileged Chinese women and by Westerners at the turn of the 20th c.  One could appreciate the style changes that occurred during the scenes set a couple decades later.  Much research must have been done.

The addition of dancers was an excellent choice as they illustrated the hard lives of the peasants during the feudal period.  Sean Curran's choreography bound the scenes together.

It was a genuine pleasure to hear a contemporary opera with great music.  It was also a great pleasure to hear it sung in Mandarin.  Translated into English, the dialogue would have sounded silly.

(c) meche kroop

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