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.

Thursday, July 14, 2016


Qian Yin in Paradise Interrupted (photo by Stephanie Berger)

Last night was the opening of the Lincoln Center Festival and we were filled with anticipation for Paradise Interrupted, playing at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, a comfortable venue for productions of this kind.  Like all summer art festivals, risks are taken, rules are broken, and much debate ensues.

One's appreciation for this "art installation opera" largely depends upon how one approaches the work. The booklet that we received will occupy us for some time to come if we wish to learn more about the kunqu style of Chinese opera and the interesting instruments (dizi, sheng, and pipa) that were included in the 14-piece orchestra. The words of the director (and visual designer) Jennifer Wen Ma offer an almost exegesis-like description of her concept--the melding of Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden and a dream of Du Liniang of The Peony Pavilion, which we unfortunately have never seen.

But we have seen and enjoyed Chinese opera of every variety from the most rustic works of the provinces to the refined Beijing Opera. We have discussed with some of our Chinese singer friends how they incorporate the various tones of Mandarin into the melody of the Chinese songs they have sung on their programs. We were informed that the tones of each word are more or less ignored in deference to the overall melody.

In the case of Huang Ruo's composition of Paradise Interrupted, such was not the case and Mr. Ruo (composer of Dr. Sun Yat Sen, which we so enjoyed at the Santa Fe Opera) put a great deal of effort into composing the vocal line to respect the tones of the words. The artistry of Qian Yi gave the same respect in her execution of the vocal line.

In our opinion, a work of art needs to stand alone and to be appreciated for what it is, not for what the director tells us it is.  If there is a story, or a moral, we want to find it for ourselves. Each of us brings something to a work of art and it will resonate with us in a unique way. We personally don't want to be thinking about the underlying machinery.

On this basis, our appreciation of this work was guided by our senses and private associations. The work seemed to be about the search for something lost--a lover perhaps. Toward the end, the heroine finds love in what seems to be a geometric flower but is held captive and must escape. Is love a trap? What seems to be a rain of ashes becomes a pool of ink.  Could this be the ink a woman needs to write or paint her own destiny?

We enjoyed the performance of Qian Yi to the maximum possible extent. Her lovely voice brought out every nuance of Mr. Ruo's music and her movement, while not quite what we Westerners think of as dance, had all the grace of ballet. Her arms, as flexible as a swan's neck, spoke volumes and the delicacy of her hands expressed an entire range of emotion. Her tiny shuffling steps across the stage made her appear to be floating an inch off the ground. Gwen Welliver is credited as choreographer.

There were four male voices acting as elements of nature and when they joined in harmony toward the end, it was a very special moment. Counter-tenor John Holiday is known to us and greatly admired; he got a huge hand during the curtain call. Tenor Yi Li, baritone Joo Won Kang, and bass-baritone Ao Li were similarly excellent.

Mr. Ruo's music delighted us with its strange harmonies and textures; it was at times thoughtful, at other times vivid, at other times playful.  It was never ugly as so much contemporary music is. Maestro Wen-Pin Chien guided the  Ensemble Fire into a harmonious union of East and West.

The libretto, by Ji Chao, Jennifer Wen Ma, Huang Ruo, and Qian Yi had little to add. Perhaps the Chinese poetry lost something in translation but we enjoyed just listening and looking.

The stark set by Matthew J.Hilyard was entirely black and white--quite a departure from the vibrant colors of traditional Chinese opera. There was a bare tree that eventually bore fruit. There was a "garden" constructed of intricately cut and folded paper. 

Video projections of moving lights (meant to be fireflies) were shown in the background during one of the more interesting segments. They seemed to respond to Ms. Yi's voice. Austin Switser is credited as Video Designer with Guillermo Acevedo responsible for the Interactive Video Design.

The costuming by Melissa Kirgan and Xing-Zhen Chung-Hilyard was perfect in every respect.  Ms. Yi wore a loose white shift with a long white scarf substituting for the traditional water sleeves. The four men were in traditional garb in shades of grey making them look almost like statues of stone when they were not moving.

Toward the end, the set was illuminated with colored light and we realized how thirsty were our eyes for some color! Lighting design by Lihe Xiao was adapted by Andrew Cissna. 

The work premiered last summer at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston.  The brief 80 min. production will be repeated Friday and Saturday night.

Although we failed to grasp Ms. Ma's "concept" we were content to appreciate the work on its aural and visual terms.

(c) meche kroop

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