Beginning “Fiery Jade-Cai Yan” An Opera

Today I wrote the first notes of the opera “Fiery Jade-Cai Yan.”

That is the working title provided by librettist Zhang Er, my collaborator on this experiment.

(I should more appropriately say I am Zhang Er’s collaborator as she initiated the project by writing a libretto just for fun, to see how it might be done!) She is an opera fan and wondered how a published Chinese poet could use words, perhaps in two languages, to make a piece that both western and Chinese audiences would respond to. I asked to see it and was very intrigued with the choice of story and the inherent drama that seemed very “operatic.”

We have agreed to work on a single scene as an experiment to see if we agree on the musical language and how well it works on stage. With any luck, we will perform this at Pacific Lutheran University sometime in the next year.

Er is a poet with multiple books of poetry published. She writes in Chinese but collaborates with colleagues to produce bi-lingual editions that are really beautiful. I am a western-trained composer with a 20 year fascination with everything Chinese including Chinese opera and various instrumental traditions.

We both love Chinese history and the many characters who populate it and are the subject of millenia of didactic and poetic tales. Cai Yan is one of these: a talented woman poet and musician of the late Han Dynasty, about 2000 years ago, who lived during one of the many inter-dynastic periods when everything was falling apart and then slowly coming together again. She was the daughter of a prime minister and the wife of another official when war broke out with a northern border culture and she was captured and sent north to marry the “barbarian” prince. She seems to have actually found a complex happiness in that new, nomadic life- so foreign and usually so despised by Chinese culture- raising two sons with an apparently truly loving husband. Nonetheless, when later called back to China by a new regime, she had to obey, leaving behind her family. She represents many women of traditional China, forever at the command of family, duty and nation, yet always retaining her own identity and honor. As Zhang Er points out, there are few operas, western or Chinese, in which the woman survives, thrives, and goes down in history as a loving mother, spouse and patriot. I wouldn’t call the story exactly “happy”- indeed even at the end, where a kind of resolution is found, it is a mixed one- but it is a positive one in which the winds of history and change in troubled times are told through the eyes of a woman in all her universal femine roles.

Zhang Er suggested that some of the “characters” in the opera be represented by a trio of three singers, called the Three Stars, representing the Chinese values Happiness, Wealth and Longevity (we often see statues of these at Chinese restaurants.) This trio will portray those characters who most “embody the mainstream of Chinese values.” They sing various roles: emperors or ministers, the mother-in-law, servants. This provides me a very abstract musical entity who will be a sharp, and thus very interesting contrast to the other, more human characters sung by a single singer. There will also be a chorus of men and women who function as groups of people at various points.

As usual when I set texts, I did a lot of analyzing of Er’s libretto, searching it for its major literary and narrative themes. I’ve come up with quite a rich list: War, Fragility, Confucian Ritual, Buddhist Withdrawal, Children, Settled Chinese vs. Nomadic Culture, Husbands/Fathers/Kings/Princes… All of these can be represented respectively by certain iconic instruments.

I’ve also brought up my usual (and long established) set of western instruments that can emulate the sound of Chinese instruments: pizzicato-glissando cello and harp for the guqin, flute for the xiao, oboe/english horn for the suona, various percussion for Chinese percussion, etc.

I’ve also begun my frequent process of inventing the pitch/harmony world of the piece. I do this by beginning with a pentatonic (five-note) scale- in this case the usual Confucian one but in a mode (E-G-A-C-D)- and then dividing the other 7 pitches of the 12-note scale into two other groups, in this case a 4-note group (Bb-Cb-F-F#) and a 3-note group (Db-Eb-Ab). Each of these produces really interesting and dramatically appropriate motives and themes in and of themselves, and produces others when combined in various ways. By doing this, I constantly force myself into unknown musical territory. I consider it to be a kind of musical chemistry in which I invent elements and compounds and then experiment with them to produce the biology of the piece- the actual musical ideas that the audience will hear.

By including a pure penatatonic scale in my chemistry, I have the opportunity to present it unadulterated whenever I need that naive, beautiful, nostalgic evocation of pure beauty, harmony or peace. But I can also “complicate” it in numerous ways with other pitches from the other two groups of pitches.

I’ve chosen an anticipated set of nine instruments to accompany the singers onstage: string quartet, flute, oboe/english horn, harp and two percussionists. Others may be added if necessary, but I will try to discipline myself to stick to this small ensemble to keep the opera practical both logistically and financially.

So- how does it begin? well, this experimental scene is the second of the opera, following an opening “prelude” scene. So I need to think about what has just preceded this scene as I imagine how it begins. In fact the prelude ends with both impending disaster and the happy news of a baby’s birth (Cai Yan’s in fact!) This second scene begins perhaps 18 years later as Cai Yan is mourning the deaths of her own young and beloved husband, and her father, the Prime Minister. It is also Spring, however, (Zhang Er has provided us some sad irony here!) so the plum blossoms out the window need to be musically present as well as the obvious mood of mourning and familial tension.

I begin with the notes of note group 2 in the strings- particularly F-Bb and Cb- providing the darker side of the mood, and let the harp and flute bring a brighter quality to represent flowers and spring. So far, I have about 30 seconds of music…

But at least I have begun! And to have begun an opera is better than to have thought about beginning an opera!  So- we are launched. More soon.


One thought on “Beginning “Fiery Jade-Cai Yan” An Opera

  1. E A M Harris says:

    This work sounds wonderful. I do hope the scene is a success so you go on and do the whole work.

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