By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer
SANTA FE, N.M. - Composer Bright Sheng never saw the subject of his new opera, Madame Mao, although he grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when chaos and terror reigned.
"She was very powerful, and I was indirectly under her control," says Sheng, between rehearsals on the grounds of Santa Fe Opera, nestled in New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
As a 15-year-old boy, he was sent from his home in Shanghai to the Chinghai Province on the Tibetan border to be "re-educated." But because of his musical ability, he was spared a life of hard labor in the fields, and allowed to work in a folk music troupe.
Unlike many Chinese musicians whose careers suffered, Sheng's experience became the inspiration for his later compositions.
"I got interested in folk music and peasant music, which stayed with me," says Sheng, who has expanded his interest to include Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project.
"The other thing was, those years taught me how to teach myself," he adds. "Ultimately, if you want to find your own path, your own individual voice, you have to be your own teacher at a certain point."
In 1982, penniless but talented, Sheng moved to the United States to work with the cream of American-based composers. Leonard Bernstein, one of his mentors, encouraged him to embrace his ethnicity.
His music, such as his one-act opera The Song of Majnun, mounted at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music in 1996, is unique for its well-crafted fusion of East and West.
"Fusion nowadays is a dirty word," says Sheng, looking very American in jeans, polo shirt and sneakers. "But for lack of a better one, this is the word to describe me. I'm 100 percent Chinese, and I'm 100 percent American. One has to have profound understanding of both cultures."
Now one of America's rising stars, Sheng was named a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Fellow with a cash prize of $500,000 in 2001. He is the Leonard Bernstein Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of Michigan.
In two acts, Madame Mao is his first full-scale opera. His greatest challenge, he says, was to keep the story uncomplicated.
"Her life has the right ingredients of good opera: betrayal, deceit, murder, love, lust, sex - all that," he says. "The best operas in history are those sort of melodramatic, simple stories. So we had to come up with a simple story line, which is repression and revenge."
The objective of Sheng and his librettist, Colin Graham, was to make a dramatically compelling theater work - that was not necessarily historically accurate. They altered some facts - such as an affair in the opera between Mao and the actress Jiang Ching (who became Madame Mao) discovered in flagrante by Mao's then-wife. (The affair actually happened with a translator for an American reporter.)
Sheng sees Madame Mao's character in two ways: one as a victim of Chinese society, which looked upon a powerful woman as a "bad omen." The other is as the protagonist of his opera, as someone whom he tries to see "what makes her tick."
"Her entire life was miserable, except for the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution, during which she was under one person - but above millions," he says.
Musically, he draws upon a spectrum of styles. His two main characters have themes derived from Chinese melodies. Mao's theme is based on "East is Red," an "Ode to Mao" heard throughout China during the leader's lifetime.
"I cannot think of Mao without hearing this music," Sheng says. Madame Mao has a theme from a folk tune with text that says, "In a remote place, there is a beautiful girl."
"I'm thinking, in her mind, she was mostly very lonely," Sheng says.
Could this opera be shown in China today?
"I hope, one day," Sheng says. "Although it's fiction, it's still sensitive. But I certainly hope they will allow it to be done in China. I think people will be interested in seeing it."
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