In my last post about my opera with poet Zhang Er, I explained the origin of the story (2000 year old story about a woman buffeted by the winds of politics, war and family duty), and my compositional process of inventing the “chemistry” of the piece before beginning to develop the “biology”- the actual themes and motives the audience will hear and come to recognize. At that point I proudly announced I had about 30 seconds of music!
Now I have almost 9 minutes of music, and I am at the end of the first half of the scene. Er and I met a month ago, before she left for Beijing, to listen together to what I had. It was a nervous moment for both of us, as we both had our own ideas of the scene, its characters and its emotions. Music is enormously powerful when applied to existing texts and can completely change our understanding of a scene. We all know this from watching movies or TV when music enters and communicates to us powerfully through its subconscious asociations: dissonance, consonance, instrumental sound color, rhythm, etc… I hoped that Zhang Er would like and approve of the powerful music I had set her words and characters to, and she was of course hoping that I had enhanced, not completely misunderstood or destroyed her text!
I think what came out of our meeting was the best possible scenario: she felt that the music was too “pretty”- that I had over-emphasized the beautiful sorrow of Cai Yan’s aria to her dead husband, and not put enough emphasis on the teenager that she is, facing an unfair and cruel barrage of abuse from her mother-in-law. I have tried to address these concerns as I continued to compose to the end of this scene between Cai Yan and her mother-in-law. It now has considerably more tension!
The scene is divided into two “houses”- both visible on stage at the same time. The first one is Cai Yan’s husband’s family home, now, with his death and that of his father, dominated by Cai Yan’s mother-in-law. This woman is self-absorbed with her own loss and lack of security in troubled times: her husband and protector is gone, and her son, who should be the one to feed her ghost after her death, is now gone as well. She is adrift and desperate in the Confucian world of ritual with no one to comfort or care for her. But in her despair, she is cruelly unfeeling toward her daughter-in-law, Cai Yan, blaming her for barrenness and the lack of grandsons to fill in for her deceased son in the rituals.
Cai Yan herself sings to her dead young husband, trying to keep alive the beauty of their lives together through memory and wishing him well as he “journeys west” to the land of the dead. She is interrupted time and again by her mother-in-law, played by a trio of tenors in an abstract, ritual way, who blame her for everything and deny her a right to her own grief. Cai Yan is, at this point, about 18-19 years old, and well-trained in the deference expected of a daughter-in-law toward her Chinese mother-in-law. Nonetheless, she is also a teenager in emotional stress, and this goading by the mother-in-law begins to break down her reserve and we see flashes of temper and self-defense. This is tricky to convey in music, as this behavior would be highly unusual in traditional Chinese family culture, and it requires me to carefully go back and forth between Cai Yan’s normal human response to abuse and her assumption that only in deference can she remain in this family, which is now her family and thus her only hope of survival in troubled times.
Her beautiful aria to her husband undergoes transformation time and again, basically a set of variations on the theme emphasizing the five-note Confucian scale, as she becomes more and more agitated. The mother-in-law, too, sings a set of variations on her own theme which is based on the four note group Bb-Cb-F-F# with which the scene opens in the violins. (See previous post for these details of the musical chemistry.) At last, both Cai Yan and the mother-in-law reach a point of no return, and Cai Yan announces the unthinkable- she is leaving the house and family and returning to her own mother, who is also in mourning for her husband- Cai Yan’s father. The scene ends dramatically with Cai Yan annoncing her departure in a very un-Chinese, unfilial cry of defiance- a first indication of the strong, independent nature of this remarkable Chinese woman of history.
That is where I am now, after about 9 minutes of music. Now I face the task of inventing some new musical ideas to represent and accompany new themes: Cai-Yan’s father and his “Qin” (Chinese ritual zither), her mother who is a convert to the new, foreign religion of Buddhism which rejects even the Chinese concept of family as “illusion” and recommends withdrawal from the world’s sorrows into monastic seclusion… At the end of this much more calm, thinly-scored scene, soldiers burst in and all hell breaks loose! So- this next scene will be challenging! And of course the themes I invent for this next scene, like these already composed, must serve not only here but at various places throughout the opera where I need to musically refer to the same emotions and ideas: action or withdrawal, deference to tradition or rebellion against it, beauty or its opposite…
Play the audio mp3 file at the top of this post and see if the music, even in the absence of the texts, allows you to imagine two grieving widows singing past each other, against each other, and ultimately rejecting each other…