Founded on real life
Witnessing the evolution of a musical work is a fascinating experience - particularly if you've written it. In a small rehearsal room deep below New York's Lincoln Centre, mainland composer Huang Ruo and Hong Kong librettist Candace Chong Mui-ngam are hearing a 25-minute extract from their new opera, Dr Sun Yat-sen, sung for the first time.
It's a cosmopolitan gathering: George Manahan, director of the New York City Opera, is the conductor, principal singers Gong Dongjian and Yang Guang hail from the mainland, while the City Opera's vocal ensemble sing the part of the chorus using a pinyin score. Nervous faces become relaxed and worry turns to enjoyment as the singers breeze their way through the new composition, accompanied only by piano. Composer and librettist agree that their work is sounding good. Dr Sun Yat-sen was commissioned by Opera Hong Kong to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1911 Xinhai rebellion, which overthrew the Qing dynasty and established the Republic of China. The new work is set to premiere in Hong Kong later in the year, before moving to Guangzhou and Beijing.
Interestingly, Huang has composed two versions of the score: one for a western orchestra and the other for a Chinese ensemble. Hongkongers will hear the Chinese version with the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, while listeners on the mainland will experience a performance with a western orchestra. Although untested as yet, it is hoped that the vocals - the piece is sung in Putonghua - will seamlessly integrate with both orchestral arrangements.
Sun Yat-sen is known for helping to establish the Republic of China. The opera keeps the historical events in the foreground by means of a chorus. But the story, as befits an opera, focuses on a more personal event in his life.
When Sun fled to Japan to escape imperial assassins, Soong Ching-ling, the young daughter of his friend and supporter Charlie Soong, went with him. The two were married, much to the displeasure of Soong and his wife, Ni Guanzhi: Sun was not only older than his new bride, but already married.
The opera follows the shifting relationship between the two men as important political events play out behind them.
'Dr Sun is a fascinating figure on both a personal and political level,' says Huang, who conferred with Chong about the opera's subject while she was researching and writing the libretto.
'It was enlightening when we looked into his life story. Our goal was to portray him as a flesh-and-blood human being. It would have been easy to set him up as some kind of a god, as he is such an important figure in Chinese history.
'Of course, it's his political life that we know him best for. But we have told his story in a way that will be accessible to audiences even if they know nothing about Chinese culture and history. It's a story about friendship and love,' Huang says.
Chong, a notable Hong Kong playwright whose theatrical successes include Alive in the Mortuary, French Kiss and Murder in San Jos?, says she tried to inform herself about the personality behind the revolutionary politician by reading through his many speeches. She came to respect her subject: 'His writing was that of a very humble person. He had an expansive vision and he was committed to helping the poor and saving China from the incursions of the foreign powers. I ended up respecting him a great deal.'
Gong, the bass singer who plays Charlie Soong, points out that it's unusual for Chinese heroes to be portrayed in such a personal way. 'I like the way they have done it, as it's not too grand,' says Gong. 'In China they always make people very grand. But this is more lifelike. It's a real man in trouble and someone helps him. He's a real person, not a superman.'
His on-stage wife, the formidable Yang, agrees: 'I like the way they have put the history in the background. It's there, of course, but the main story is about the love between him and the young girl.'
One element that is causing some consternation among the singers is the dual western and Chinese nature of the score. It is 35-year-old Huang's first opera and it is ambitious.
The composer feels that the dual nature of the work will not be a problem. 'The two orchestras are certainly very different,' he says. 'Chinese orchestras don't have brass, for instance, and they have strummed instruments which aren't in western ones. So in that sense, there will be big differences. But it is still the same piece of music. The score already incorporates both Chinese and western elements - it's not like it's two completely different scores. It's easy for them to co-exist.'
Huang, who was born on Hainan Island, studied composition on the mainland and in the US. He attended the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and, later, the Juilliard School in New York. His compositions, while framed in the western classical tradition, referenced Chinese music and featured Chinese instruments. He says that when he first heard western opera in China, it sounded very foreign to him. Then, he says, he realised the form was very similar to Chinese singing theatre. This led him to the belief that opera could be reinvented to contain music from both cultural heritages.
The composer says he has brought into the work musical elements from Tang dynasty court music, which is known for its majestic and stately sound. 'For the past few years, I have been studying Tang dynasty court music, and you can hear it in the work,' he says. 'An opera like this should have Chinese characteristics - we should not deny our culture to make it totally western. It is western-style, as the singers are western trained. But I wanted to try to make a bridge back to ancient China with the music.
'The Chinese language is so different from a western language. Because it is based on characters, it is spoken with certain phrasing. So when we put it into songs we have to add extra terms to make the phrasing flow. But some of the music written since the 19th century doesn't do that. It has become more direct. So I want to go back, in a sense. I want to preserve the beauty of the ancient way of doing things.'
Mezzo-soprano Yang, who is known for singing romantic operas by Verdi and Puccini, says she likes Huang's chamber music as it features many Chinese elements such as ancient tones that are rarely used on the mainland today.
'You might find them in a very isolated village, but not in the main areas. China moved on, we modernised, and our music modernised with us. You can find that kind of flavour in all of Huang's work. I like that. I think he presents the root of Chinese culture in a very typical way,' she says.
A week later, performers and composers have reconvened in another subterranean venue, the Skirball Centre, just off New York's Washington Square Park. The opera is set for another stage in its evolution - the first public performance of the opening 25 minutes. A western orchestra breathes life into the framework that was heard on a piano a week earlier during the rehearsal.
The music and voices soar, propelled by the rhythmically inventive percussion that is typical of Chinese music. The personal character of Sun Yat-sen, it seems, has reached another stage in its evolution.