In addition to soprano Li Jing-Jing, I got to speak to SCO music director Yeh Tsung for the Savage Land production as well. The show runs for only one day on 28 February 2015. Here is what we discussed:
The Mad Scene: This production sounds so exciting to a fan of musical drama like me. Why was this opera selected to be performed at Huayi 2015?
Yeh Tsung: As modern chinese orchestra we don't want to just play instrumental pieces. Like symphony orchestras worldwide we also want to play operatic and oratorio repertoire as well as experiment with multimedia. Since I took over we have experimented with productions either with Huayi Festival or with the Singapore Arts Festival or on our own.
But this is not the first time we are doing a Western-style opera. A few years ago we did Thunderstorm (雷雨）, also based on a book by Cao Yu, but by composer Mo Fan. But this opera, Savage Land, calls for a significantly bigger production. I see it as an important step for SCO to forge, to go through a more diversified function. This is the very first opera in Chinese language in Western operatic form, with arias, recitatives, duets and Italian-style bel canto singing. It is also the very first Western-style opera from China to be performed abroad in the United States.
It's first performance abroad in Washington DC received rave reviews, not to mention the opera itself is also from a very famous Cao Yu play. To me Thunderstorm and Savage Land are like two sister plays, Thunderstorm describes city life of the early 20th century, but Savage Land describes the countryside life in Northern China. In the early 20th century country life is very important because majority of the Chinese people were peasants. The population of cities are now enormous, but in the early 20th century the larger part of the population in China were in villages, as peasants. So Savage Land paints a very realistic stroke to really describe the bleak village life of early 20th century.
Composer Jing Xiang did a wonderful job adapting this play into operatic form, we have also engaged Phoon Yew Tian (resident composer of SCO and cultural madallion winner) to adapt it for Chinese orchestra.
The Mad Scene: How would you describe the musical style of this opera?
Yeh Tsung: Jing Xiang is a modern composer; he adopted a lot of modern compositional techniques, particularly the dissonances in the harmony. Which is perfect for this opera, beacuse Savage Land's vision portrays the bleak, bloody life of the Chinese countryside of the time. Jin Xiang's harmonies and sound effects are really perfect to describe that. But his solo parts for the singers are quite romantic, his talent is in combining these two things together. The New York Times described the opera's style is 'neo-romanticism'.
(see also NYT Review: Review/Opera; From China, Echoes of Puccini)
The Mad Scene: What have you heard of Li Jing-Jing?
Yeh Tsung: I've listened to a lot of soprano's recordings based on recommendations by agents and other colleagues, and Li Jing-Jing came out very polished and quite a dramatic presence yet quite lyrical in her own way.
In most other productions people tend to use dramatic sopranos. For my production I chose to use Li Jing-Jing, Her voice is more lyrical, it can sometimes be a bit more coloratura. I don't want to do the same thing as others, and I feel that Li Jing-Jing's lyrical voice can be as dramatic as any dramatic soprano's. She has a very beautiful voice and has a lot of experience in opera. I picked her on purpose as I don't want to play by convention. I hope that she will help me to show the lyrical part of Jing Zi's character, lend a more tender side to her characterisation.
As a conductor or director you can easily put this opera in black or white, with very cardboard images, but this time Goh Boon-Teck and myself and we also tried to find something in between black and white. Obviously the laawgood guys are Jing Zi and Chou Gu, the bad guys are Jiao Yan-Wang and his wife, Jin Zi's Mother-in-Law. But this time we will see that even the Jiao family has good things, like the Mother-in-Law, as evil as she is also has soft parts, and is trying to work things out as a blind woman.
On the other side we see that Chou Gu is obviously harbouring this hatred, and rightfully so, but on the other side he has no right to kill a man like Jiao Da-Qing, so nothing is black and white. Our production seeks to explore these moral grey areas and the complexity of humanity.
You may think of this opera as a tragedy, but it is not. Because Jing Zi carries Chou Gu's baby, so there is hope. And also I see that people see Chou Gu when he first came out as a character full of hatred, rightfully of course, as Jiao Yan Wang murdered his family and threw him in jail. On the other side he also feels terribly guilty after he kills Jiao Da Qing. I thought that part was the great humanity he shows.
But there's no end to hatred you see; this really wonderful part of the opera that Goh Boon-Teck and myself really want to bring out. This is also a part that shows how great Cau Yu's writing is. Its also a part that a lot of people sort of overlook. A lot of people tend to just classify the characters as good guys and bad guys, but the world is not so simple! So as we were planning our production, Book Teck and myself had a couple of talks to make sure there is something between black and white.
The Mad Scene: It seems to be very well thought out for a semi-staged concert. Is there time to put everything together?
Yeh Tsung: Yes I'm quite sure. After 12 years of working with this orchestra we've already done several semi-staged productions from Marco Polo to Admiral Zheng He and Thunderstorm, so we have a lot of experience in this area. Although each production is quite different I'm very confident that we will not only be able to carry through but carry through very well. The orchestra is not only looking forward to this production, but Book Teck and I are ready to work with these world class singers from China and Singapore.
Zhang Feng is a leading baritone from Shanghai Opera. Zhang Yaling, the tenor who sings Jiao Da Qing, already has a wonderful career in Europe. I consider him one of the best tenors that China gave to the wrold stage. Our mezzo Zhu Huiling is actually living in Europe, graduated from Shanghai Conservatory and now working in operatic stages in Europe. And also we have two local singers, William Lim and Melvin Tan, who have sung in numerous operas here and abroad.
The Mad Scene: What kind of experience would you want the audience to have after watching the performance?
Yeh Tsung: I hope that you can help me to describe this piece's complexity. Although the harmony can get qutie modern, the arias can get quite romantic, in some parts in can get quite traditional. And the story itself, the play itself, was from an early part of the 20th century, so the meoldies are what audiences are familiar with, and I think they can adapt to the harshly modern sonorities very quickly because it fits the story very well. The composer tried to describe a very bleak picture of revenge, a society full of injustice and inequality. That was the reason why our ancestors left China to come to Singapore! That is the reason our grandfathers, our fathers and mothers left China to escape the ineuqality, the natural disasters, foreign invasions made life so hard that they had to come to Nanyang to find a new life so that hopfully their children can live very nicely.
So a storyline like this should not be too remote for our audience. This corrupt society is so tellingly portrayed in Savage Land, this is the society that made our grandparents leave their homeland for Singapore in search of a better future.