One of the mainland's top stage directors comes to Hong Kong with a 'theatrical poem' put to music that's meant to shine a spotlight on official corruption
With an impressive body of work from more than three decades of directing, Chen Xinyi might be described as the high priestess of mainland theatre. She has staged a slew of acclaimed dramas, among them a play about Peking opera legend Mei Lanfang and another on the tragic pre-Qin dynasty reformer Shang Yang, which reportedly moved reform-minded vice-premier Zhu Rongji to tears when he saw the production in 1996. Along the way, Chen has also garnered 12 awards from the Ministry of Culture.
This week Chen, a native of Xian, brings her dramatic vision to bear in an unusual piece of theatre in collaboration with the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, titled Farewell, Snow in Summer and in the Thoughts. The show features Chen in not only her usual role as director, but also as narrator for the three musical works in the programme - Memories, Zhuang Zhou's Dream and Autumn Execution.
It is Chen's third directorial effort in Hong Kong; she previously steered Dr Sun Yat-sen, a three-act opera commemorating the centenary of the 1911 Chinese Revolution, and the local debut of The Chinese Orphan (Orphan of Zhao), an opera based on a classic tale of the spring and autumn.
Neither matches the intensity that Chen is bringing to this production, which runs tonight and tomorrow night. A fortnight ago, she flew in to direct two days of rehearsals with the orchestra and to check on staging details, from costume to decor.
"This production, which I call a theatrical poem, exceeds a full drama. After directing for 35 years, I am taking part in the play for the first time as narrator because I trust I can do a better job on my own script than anyone else," she says.
Theatrical poetry, or jushi in Putonghua, is a form of staging that blends narrative with poetic touches. Her best-known jushi was based on the 1907 Chinese adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin (the first modern stage work performed in China).
The contemporary production linked the tragic lives of 19th century black slaves in America with those of writers facing persecution during the Cultural Revolution. Performed in Beijing in 2007 to mark the centenary of modern stage plays in the country, the production was a national sensation.
This weekend's performances will be her first theatrical poem performed with a full Chinese orchestra, and Chen hopes the audience will enjoy the music while dreaming up their own stories.
"This active listening experience will keep the audience in a high aesthetic state. That's my whole idea of getting everyone to free their imagination to appreciate the music's power, which moved me to conceive of this production," she says.
But what has moved Chen most of all is the theme of injustice, which has plagued China through the centuries. "China needs to reflect on its long history of injustice and corruption, and the best way to do it is through theatrical arts," she says.
Central to this theme is her rendition of Snow in Summer (literally, Snow in June ). Based on Yuan dynasty playwright Guan Hanqing's often performed work, it is the story of Dou E, a hapless young widow who is framed for murder by a man who failed to pressure her into marrying him. She is eventually beheaded, but before the execution, Dou makes three predictions that would prove her innocence: her blood would spill on a white cloth but not fall to the ground, snow would fall in June, and three years of drought would ensue.
The tale is also the inspiration for the third musical work in the production, Autumn Execution by Macanese maestro Doming Lam.
"It was superb music writing, especially the use of Chinese instruments to express the words Dou E repeatedly utters on the way to her execution, yuan wang ya [I am innocent], first by solo strings and woodwinds, then by the entire ensemble. The effect is stunning," Chen says.
In a clever twist, Chen's production links Dou E's story with that of prominent mainland drama activist Tian Han. Tian wrote Guan Hanqing, a widely admired play that tells about the ancient dramatist's downfall after he rejected a villainous minister's order to tone down his script about Dou E.
This acclaimed 1958 work took historical drama to a new level on the mainland by incorporating a romantic element in the character of Zhu Lanxiu, Guan's leading lady who secretly admires him and stands with him even in the face of death, Chen says.
It mirrored the fate of Tian, who also wrote the lyrics to the Chinese national anthem but came under fire during the Cultural Revolution for criticising Mao Zedong's policies. Tian eventually died in prison.
Chen's script portrays a scene when Red Guards storm into Tian's residence in 1966 and arrest him - an irony highlighted by the orchestra members singing the national anthem.
That tragedy also unfolded in June. "Doesn't that stir some imagination?" Chen asks.
"Dou E, Guan and Zhu, and Tian all fell victim to injustice of their times, and the source is the same: an authoritarian regime and its corrupt officials. With corrupt officials comes injustice. That is the eternal moral from this masterpiece, which has come down to us over the centuries.
"These literary people, including great poets Li Bai and Su Dongpo, were as fragile as butterflies which could be smashed by the lift of a finger. Why was the regime so scared of them? I think it's because they had the ability to read deeply into issues."
Chen's unusual staging requires members of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra to double up as actors and actresses, switching between music and drama as the script demands.
For example, she picked dizi flautist Lin Yu-hsien to play Dou E because Lin's petite physique suggests frailty and invites sympathy. Similarly, Hui Yin, who plays Guan, and Luo Jing, who portrays Zhu, will perform a duet on zhonghu and guzheng. "After you see them act as those characters, the passages they subsequently play will no longer be just music, but something that conveys character and story, and that's where I hope the audience will carry on with their own stories after mine," Chen says.
Memories and Zhuang Zhou's Dream - both works by prominent composer Zhao Jiping - form the rest of the soundtrack to what Chen describes as the "Butterfly Trilogy". The butterfly became a Chinese metaphor for happiness and freedom after Zhuang, the philosopher of the Warring States era who is better known as Zhuangzi, famously described a dream in which he was a butterfly.
Chen continued the theme in Snow in Summer, opening with the line: "Who doesn't yearn for freedom? But I hope man doesn't have to turn into a butterfly to become free."
Coincidentally, the trilogy brings together three natives of Shaanxi province - Chen, Zhao and the orchestra's principal conductor, Yan Huichang.
Is there some significance to the regional affiliations?
"I don't really think about it too much," Chen says. "Perhaps our common roots bring about a closer aesthetic temperament than otherwise. Take Yan as an example. He's my junior by many years, but somehow I feel he's my big brother, so I call him ge [older brother]. Zhao, too, calls me laojie [elderly sister] in a very natural way, although he did complain about me addressing Yan, who's his junior, as ge."
Shaanxi got a boost recently when another native son, Xi Jinping, rose to become the president of China.
Describing Xi as a decent man from a decent family, Chen particularly recalls how her troupe was invited to a meal at the Xi family home in Beijing in 1983. The president's father, Xi Zhongxun, who was then Communist Party secretary of the northwest bureau overseeing Shaanxi, enjoyed one her plays so much, he invited the company over for some Shaanxi saozi noodles.
In 2007, Chen again found herself a guest - this time of Xi Jinping, then the Shanghai party secretary - who invited several cultural figures, including herself, for talks on the arts.
"Shortly after the soirée, an entertainment TV channel was changed to an arts channel, which aired my stage play, Dream of the Red Chamber. That really shows Xi cares because he knows arts; otherwise, how would he fall in love with a soprano?" she says.
With Xi heading the new administration, Chen has high hopes there will be a significant impact in the fight against corruption.
"Xi said he would crack down on corrupt officials high and low, like tigers and flies, so let's give him time to do it," she says. "But for me, I trust him because he's a Shaanxi man."
Farewell, Snow in Summer and in the Thoughts, Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra; today and tomorrow, 8pm, Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, HK$150-HK$380, Urbtix. Tel: 2734 9009