Poetic licence

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 December, 2009, 12:00am

Ever spent time with a drunken poet? Librettist Diana Liao has. Liao immersed herself in the life and works of Chinese poet Li Bai to research her opera Poet Li Bai, and even retraced the writer's travels across the mainland.

'Like any child in Hong Kong, I grew up with Li Bai,' says New York-based Liao.

'I could recite his poems even before I was able to read. It was so easy to enjoy his work. He was someone who could interpret his world with ease and with an amazing perspicacity. I was fascinated by him.'

Liao's opera, which was co-written with librettist Xu Ying and scored by mainland composer Guo Wenjing, won critical acclaim when it played at the Shanghai International Arts festival in 2007.

The Financial Times said the opera in five acts 'marries the native poetic/decorative idiom to Western instrumentation and vocal delivery in a way that remains instinctively Chinese. Its potential has been brilliantly showcased.'

The work is neither a biography nor a history, but an impressionistic piece that explores the psychology of the famed Tang dynasty poet. Li's inner conflicts are played out as he addresses the subjects of his poems, which include a wine bottle and the moon. By taking this approach, Liao is able to communicate the inner dramas and contradictions that fuelled Li's creativity: his hedonism and his need to work; his disdain for social conventions and his desire to be appreciated.

'There is a wandering poet inside all of us,' says Liao, 'and we can enjoy his love of life.

'But I was more interested in what motivated him and how he kept going. When he's talking to the wine he's just a drunken loudmouth - that is his mundane and lovable earthy side. Then the moon rises and reminds him of the marvellous things that he can do with his talent - all of the opportunities that he should cherish.'

The latter reflects the more idealistic side of Li, Liao says.

'He is always conflicted, and this informs his poetry. There's an anguished side to his work, but it's also very carefree.'

Liao's father, who she describes as an engineer and a poet, sang Li's poems to her when she was a child. Later, she read them herself.

'One sentence captivated me from a young age,' she says. 'He said, 'Born with talents, destined to shine/Scattered fortunes, will again be mine.''

'[Li] knew he had talent; he knew he was meant for something. Life has so many ups and downs and misfortunes that it's heartening to encounter someone who is so sure of himself.'

Liao uses verses from Li's poems in the opera. The libretto was written in English and then translated into Putonghua by co-librettist Xu Ying. The intention was to create a 'truly bilingual' work that could be sung in both languages. The Asian Performing Arts of Colorado production to be staged at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre this week will be performed in Putonghua with Chinese and English surtitles.

The work features Liao's brother-in-law and bass Tian Haojiang, who regularly appears at the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Liao and Xu travelled by train to places associated with the poet to gain a greater understanding of his life and work - from Beijing to Xian and from there to Chengdu and by boat to Chongqing. Along the way, they studied Li's poetry, finessing their translation.

'We spent hours and hours on the slow train through China,' says Liao. 'So we read the poems out to each other. That was such fun. The way Xu read them was not the way that I read them, so the experience opened up different perspectives.'

As did their journey: 'We found many things that relate to the life of Li Bai unchanged on our trip. Everyone still knows who he is - he is very much alive in the hearts of people, even schoolchildren. Everyone has their own idea of him. Was he thin or fat? Was he arrogant or funny? Everyone feels that they know him, but in different ways.'

One challenge was to integrate the style of the libretto with the excerpts from the poems. 'There couldn't be too much difference in style between the parts that I wrote and Li's poems. So I used a lyrical style that was very cadenced.

'I used Wordsworth and even a bit of Browning to get in the right mood for writing. My co-librettist then turned it into beautiful classical Chinese. It's precise without being dry, and lyrical without being flowery.'

Veteran mainland composer Guo Wenjing wrote the score. It combines classical and modernist styles with Chinese elements such as a bamboo flute.

'The way Wenjing suffuses postmodern operatic forms with Chinese aesthetics gives Poet Li Bai its mesmerising character,' the Financial Times review said.

'Guo is very sensitive and he understood what I was trying to achieve with the written words,' says Liao. 'He thought the structure of my first version was a little too lyrical, a little too esoteric, to appeal to the public. He asked me to add a trial scene because he wanted to showcase a bit of percussion and insert some drama.

'I protested at first but I ended up liking it. The process was very back and forth.'

Poet Li Bai is Liao's first libretto. The work began as a personal project - she is not a trained librettist, but a retired translator for the UN with a love for literature and opera. She began writing the opera in 2001 and, after retiring, finished it in 2006.

It premiered in the US in 2007 and was invited to be staged on the mainland.

'I worked for the UN for 30 years and became chief translator,' Liao says.

'I had a great career and I am grateful for that. But I felt that I needed to do something that would put my passion for the written word to good use.'

She doesn't think her job as a translator has much relevance to her creative writing. 'I used a different set of words as a translator. You don't deal with emotions in a political speech. They are cut and dry, very factual.'

One critic confused some lines Liao had written with the work of Li Bai - something she found thrilling. 'The biggest compliment anyone could pay us would be to confuse what we had written with Li's poetry,' she says, grinning. 'I was in seventh heaven!'

Poet Li Bai, Fri and Dec 6, 7.30pm, Grand Theatre, HK Cultural Centre, HK$120-HK$600. Diana Liao will be giving pre-performance talks on both dates at 6.30pm. Admission is free. Inquiries: 2268 7321