History's high notes
Composer Liu Sola has used the life of Mao's wife to explore the musical and cultural tapestry of the past century, writes Sally Course
Composer, vocalist and writer Liu Sola has always gone her own way. In the mid-1980s, the free-spirited Beijing-based artist turned her post-Cultural Revolution experiences as a composition student at the Central Conservatory of Music into the award-winning cult novella You Have No Choice. In 1987, she went to the US on a writing fellowship and experienced a life-changing moment upon hearing bluesman Junior Wells perform in Chicago.
She spent the 90s and beyond overseas, bringing Chinese touches to similar sounds and releasing several innovative recordings, including the acclaimed Blues in the East. Now, with everyone on the mainland racing forward, she has been drawing her music and writing together to look back.
The result can be seen in Fantasy of the Red Queen, an intriguing chamber opera originally commissioned and premiered at Germany's House of World Cultures in 2006. Germany's Ensemble Modern and the Liu Sola & Friends Ensemble will present the show this week in Hong Kong as part of the New Vision Arts Festival.
To Liu, who wrote the libretto and score, and who takes the main role, reflection on the culture of the past is important in order to recognise the influences that guide the present.
'China wants to be involved in the new cultural movements in the world. But if you're not alert to what went before, there will be a great deal of confusion,' she says.
In Fantasy of the Red Queen, Liu employs the tumultuous existence of Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong's fourth wife and member of the Gang of Four, to make such a return journey. Jiang isn't portrayed directly. The lead character is an old woman driven mad by her desire for power. However, the nameless woman identifies herself with Jiang. As the story unfolds on stage and through video flashbacks, the opera offers an opportunity to contemplate the past.
Liu was drawn by Jiang's dramatic experiences, the tragic nature of her climb to power and her impact on the arts. 'I had been thinking for a long time about Jiang's story and what it involved. It was such a dark and crazy life.'
During the Cultural Revolution Jiang turned traditional culture into a political weapon, transforming it into propaganda art. 'People feel, 'Oh, that's the past',' says Liu, who was a teenager at the time of the upheaval, which began in 1966. 'But they don't think the past is deeply rooted in our daily life and it influences our judgment. For example, how we judge new art.'
The historical and social aspects of the production, which also addresses the role of women in Chinese society, are highlighted in its eclectic music.
Liu's research took her back over the past century, taking in the 'half-colonial' (as she terms it) period, Marxism, revolutionary romanticism and the Cultural Revolution among others.
Motifs include traditional music, 30s jazz, revolutionary songs, Shanghai pop and Chinese hip hop, as well as a range of classical music. 'I found the research a fascinating journey,' Liu says. 'China had a very rich culture over those 100 years. It all leads to what Chinese culture is today. Through this story, I could reflect my thinking to show people what influences we have.'
Jiang's complex, volatile life encouraged Liu to switch rapidly between music from different eras, sometimes within one bar. In this way, she was able to embed layers of historical references and offer another key way to listen to the past.
'I've always been interested in bringing different musical styles together within a very short time. When a person speaks, their education and personality may come out in one sentence. For me, music is like this,' she says.
Fantasy of the Red Queen not only serves to remind others of earlier days; it has returned Liu to her own past.
'For much of the past 20 years I've been dedicated to jazz and new music. With this, I'm back to the start, with an orchestra and western instruments.'
Liu puts her free spirit down to her teenage years during the Cultural Revolution. When she was 14 years old her father was jailed and her mother sent to a re-education camp. Liu was left in the care of the family's nanny for a few years. This enforced independence, combined with her age and a group of friends who encouraged and supported her bid to be an individual, proved a turning point.
'People think I'm braver, crazier than other people. The foundation of those years made me like this. I have changed a lot since then. But that difficult period somehow opened a door for me. That's why I never hold negative memories of the past,' she says.
In 2002, after living overseas for 15 years, Liu returned to the mainland when her mother became ill. She now has a studio in Beijing, where she works with her ensemble and continues her voyage of discovery into Chinese music.
'I feel there are so many good musicians in this country, but the conditions are not really completely developed for concerts, especially for my kind of music. Luckily, I still go to Europe for other projects. Then I come back to work with my musicians. I look at them and say: 'Yes, I want to spend time here.' It doesn't matter if I don't have a concert,' Liu says.
She is looking forward to seeing how Hong Kong audiences react to Fantasy of the Red Queen, she says. However she is not pushing for the show to appear over the border. 'I think one day we will perform on the mainland but I don't think this is the right time.'
Fantasy of the Red Queen (in Putonghua with English and Chinese surtitles), Fri-Sat, 8pm, Kwai Tsing Theatre Auditorium, HK$150, HK$220, HK$320, HK$420 Urbtix. Inquiries: 2370 1044. Post-performance talk, Fri