After four and a half years of on-and-off work, my second opera, “Fiery Jade: Cai Yan” premiered at Pacific Lutheran University on November 17-20 in Eastvold Auditorium in the Karen Hille Phillips Performing Arts Center. For four performances the inside of my head was on full audiovisual display for the world; now everyone knows what I was thinking about all those times I was obviously not paying attention…
My co-conspirator, librettist Zhang Er set in motion a project that has dominated my compositional thinking for years and beautifully allowed me to take all the things I have learned from perhaps a dozen pieces based upon Chinese influences and put them all to work together in this one big piece. From pentatonic Han Court music to Mongolian overtone singing to Buddhist chant music, my unique tonal system, evolved out of my early ’90’s flirtation with Schoenberg’s original 12 tone method, served me very well, creating music that was accessible, adventurous, colorful, dramatic and cohesive.
My sense throughout the composition process was that Zhang Er’s libretto just began to sing, the opera writing itself out of the narrative structure and the individual poetic lines. I have no idea how she achieved this for me- it seems inexplicable. But I guess all those years of watching opera, particularly new ones, paid off in a remarkable instinct for dramatic structure and flow. I changed probably only 10-20 words in the entire libretto!
The staging was minimal, the result of a very tight budget, but we adopted elements from Chinese opera- a bare stage, emphasis on costumes and movement over sets. The slightly raked upstage area provided a curious sort of perspective that reminded me of Han Dynasty tomb brick images. Five long tall black flats represented calligraphed stele with Confucian classics carved into them, a Buddha in fairly Indian styling sat on a table, two spirit tablets (smaller versions of the steles) represented dead husbands, and then of course the actual Guqin, imported from Beijing for the production- an elegant touch provided by director James Brown. Over this austere simplicity hung a screen where dazzling and dramatic details of abstract paintings by artist Becky Frehse changed with each scene. Scenes situated in China were mostly in gripping reds with violent yellows, oranges and flecks of blue; the Xiong Nu scene in Mongolia was more earth-toned with browns, greens and yellows; and the final scene of reconciliation between the main character and her mother in a Buddhist nunnery was an unearthly blue-green with implications of things growing up into a hopeful sky.
The chamber orchestra was mostly professional- string quartet, woodwind quartet plus soprano sax, trumpet, harp and four percussionists; although the sax player and three of the percussionists were very talented students who got a chance to play alongside their teachers. The singers were all undergraduates- an astonishing fact given that this was harder, less familiar and longer music than probably any of them had sung before.
In particular, the two women who sung the lead part of Cai Yan- Ally Atwood and Katie Beck (and their understudy Marissa Moultrie) all learned a very long, complex and dramatic part and delivered it beautifully and powerfully. Hats off to these rising stars for their enormous dedication and talent! Two men traded leading baritone roles every other night- Jordan Bowles and Nathan Robe, singing the parts of Prime Minister Cai Yong and General Cao Cao, both with great power and stage presence. Nick Stevens elegantly played the tenor role of the love interest Prince Zuo of the Xiong Nu tribe and found that difficult balance between conquering soldier and sympathetic man. Sarah Martin sang the mezzo role of Cai Yan’s mother and was a terrific actress as well as singer, bringing the final act together beautifully. The trio role of the “Three Stars” representing Wealth, Prosperity and Longevity as well as Confucian orthodoxy, were wonderfully sung by Brennan Brichoux, Joshua Carlisle, Tora Hedges and Alexandra Dreher, the two mezzos trading off on alternate nights. Their tight harmonies and excellent acting made them audience favorites. The two children were played by sopranos Natalie Breshears and Mollie Parce who created laughs in a serious show and then stole hearts. Members of the University Chorale, directed by Brian Galante, played characters onstage as well as out along the edges of the house surrounding the audience. Kudos to Elissa Brown, Andrew Corse, Sabrina Husseini, Blayne Fujita, Alyssa Lyngaas, Luke Hartley, Stephanie Pfundt and Brian Loughridge for their excellent onstage singing and acting as soldiers, captives, tribes people and courtiers. Many, many thanks to the other members of the University Chorale for their inspired and glorious singing in the larger choral scenes. Endless thanks to director Brian Galante for agreeing to take on this difficult dramatic opportunity for his choir of mostly freshmen and sophomores!
Between the scenes, the audience was treated to traditional and contemporary music for Chinese bamboo and ceramic flutes, played by Wang Yingying, teacher of flute at Ocean University in Qingdao, China. I think it is safe to say that the entire audience looked forward to her scene change interludes as much as the scenes! Her music and playing were utterly bewitching, full of changing colors, microtonal inflections of pitch and huge ranges of mood from soothing to terrifying.
The orchestra, elegantly led by PLU Opera Program Director James Brown, sounded exquisite. It was so satisfying to listen to them over three nights of rehearsal and then four performances get more and more deeply into the phrasing and expression of the music- supporting the singers and each other in seamless colorful beauty. The percussionists were liberated to their full expressive potential when I told them that the model was not western orchestra music, but rather Chinese opera, with its bold incisive playing. When they took that to heart, the entire sound gelled and became that unique blend of East and West I had striven for. The harpist, Catherine Case, is an extraordinary player, and even more so for her quiet enthusiasm for everything harp including my lengthy and challenging part in this opera! She played with power and commitment that made unnecessary the amplification I had assumed would be required to make the harp stand out as it had to in this music. She and cellist Richard Treat had an essential duet that recurred frequently throughout the opera- she plucking as usual and he pizzing glissandos- together emulating the sound of the Chinese Guqin zither which played an important role in the story. The result was magical.
Finally, I can’t say enough about the talent and enthusiasm of Director and Conductor James Brown. He ably leads undergraduates each year in full-length productions ranging from Monteverdi to Britten, ignoring the usual cautions about operas that undergraduates can do, knowing that he has some of the finest vocal talents in the Pacific Northwest in his program. These are not typical undergraduate voices, and so he is remarkably ambitious. Still, they are young people with limited experience, and so require unique leadership to achieve the level of performance required to sing these difficult works. He was unfailingly positive in the two and a half months of rehearsal, managed all the details of working with the costumer, set and lighting designer, and choral director, and- perhaps most generously- allowed me to insert myself uncommonly strongly into rehearsals, becoming in essence a co-director with him. This seemed necessary as the ancient Chinese culture portrayed in the opera needed to be portrayed accurately and much about that feudal, patriarchal culture is not intuitive for modern western performers. Jim listed me as “dramaturge” as well as composer in the program, an indication that he appreciated the co-direction from his enthusiastic composer colleague.
All in all, I am amazed and awed by what Pacific Lutheran University can pull off in our remarkable music department. It takes student talent, faculty cooperation, departmental support and a strong town-gown-alumni connection to successfully produce an event such as this. From my first opera “Songs from the Cedar House” 25 years ago, to “Drum Taps: Nine Poems on Themes of War” in 2012 to this latest opera, my students, colleagues and I have pushed the boundaries of the possible in pursuing ambitious musical dreams. This one is truly a dream come true for librettist Zhang Er and me- the culmination of four plus years of imagining… Now what on earth shall I do next?!