Fiery Jade: Cai Yan Premiered!!

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?!


Fiery Jade Cai Yan Scene Finished!

Between a gamelan workshop in Bali and leading 2 tours to China, I finished the scene from “Fiery Jade- Cai Yan” I have been working on since spring. It is about 22 minutes in length now; about right as I envision the overall opera; and working on it has allowed me to invent many of the important musical ideas that would be needed to complete the entire three-act opera.

At my last post, I had completed the first half of the scene, in which our (Late Han Dynasty Chinese ) heroine, 18 year-old Cai Yan, is trying to mourn her deceased husband but is abused beyond endurance by her mother-in-law (also a grieving widow). At the end she leaves her mother-in-law’s house to return to her own mother’s house, to join her mother in grieving for her murdered father. (Lots of lost men…The ends of dynasties are really bad times to try to stay alive…)

As she enters her mother’s house, her mind is angry with her experience with her mother-in-law but she is trying to focus on her deceased father and his Confucian self-improvement practice involving the scholarly and ritual instrument called “Guqin”  a 7 stringed zither. The music is thus a jangle of dissonant plucked string sounds- performed in my score by harp and pizzicato cello. Gradually there emerges the five note scale of classical China and the seven open strings of the Guqin: C-D-F-G-A-C-D. Other dissonant pitches keep encroaching, as though her mind is still too jangled to play properly and she despairs of this as she addresses her deceased father through his spirit tablet on the family alter. She sits down to contemplate the instrument, and hears in her mind the sound of the Guqin and the “Xiao”- a bamboo flute frequently played with the Guqin. Finally she carefully begins to play, trying several times a piece that she had learned from her father called “Plums Drop.” Each time dissonant wrong notes encroach, causing her once again to despair.

Her mother then approaches, playing the “wooden fish” (Muyu or temple block) of the Buddhists who have recently entered China and who’s message of the illusion of worldly suffering has appealed to many in pain. She sings to her daughter recommending the abandonment of the world in favor of meditation, using the Muyu as a meditation tool. Her music uses a modified North Indian raga, an homage to Buddhism’s origins. This contrasts well with the Chinese pentatonic scale of the Guqin’s melodies and Cai Yan’s previous aria.

These then alternate with each other as the two women dialog about how to deal with their sorrows. As their dialog reaches a climax, the “Three Stars” enter (previously they sang the role of the mother-in-law) and now represent the household servants announcing the violent entry into the city of northern nomadic armies and we hear distant drums. Cai Yan and her mother now repeat their dialogue (or singing past each other!) about how to deal with suffering, but now with the extreme urgency of the situation. As the drums reach their maximum volume, an oboe enters sounding a wild military call, representing, for the first time in the opera, the northern nomadic culture, whose music will be the dominant sound of the next act, and the stage goes to black…

Again, even though the text is not present, I wonder if you can follow the story line just listening to the MIDI playback version. Click the link below for the 12 minute scene.

More Progress on Cai Yan-Fiery Jade, the Opera

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…

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.