'Dr. Sun Yat Sen' -- a revolution in modern Chinese opera

'Dr. Sun Yat Sen' -- a revolution in modern Chinese opera

An opera focusing on the father of modern China is bridging East and West right down to the style of musical notation

Sun yat sen operaAs part of the VOX program, New Yorkers got to hear the first act of "Dr. Sun Yat Sen" in May.Perhaps China's most innovative and contemporary opera to date, "Dr. Sun Yat Sen" is what composer Huang Ruo calls "a Western-style opera with Chinese characteristics."

Apt, for its eponymous subject matter is Sun Yat Sen, considered the father of modern China -- an iconic revolutionary for the Chinese-speaking world who himself embodied the merging of East and West. A Christian fluent in English but always viewed as an authentic native son by the Chinese, Sun integrated Western political theory into his blueprints for a Chinese republican government.

Commissioned by Opera Hong Kong and realised through New York City Opera’s VOX program, "Dr. Sun Yat Sen" is set to premiere in Beijing for the 100th anniversary of the 1911 Xinhai Revolution on September 30 at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), before coming full circle to Hong Kong.

To date, the burst of heavily-publicized original operas premiered at the NCPA have been of the art-by-committee sort, yielding little more than saccharine bombast.

The task presented to Asian-American composer Huang and Hong Kong's own playwright Candace Chong was to offer insight into the life of Sun on a politically sensitive anniversary, without drawing the sort of official attention that creates slick but shallow confections like the Olympics opening ceremony.

If they are successful, it will be for the blending of -- and perhaps compromise between -- dichotomies: Eastern and Western musical disciplines as well as unearthing Sun Yat Sen the man that is within Sun Yat Sen the icon.Sun yat sen operaThe opera seeks to expose Sun as a man, rather than just an icon.

Easily East and West

"Dr. Sun Yat Sen" is a three-act opera centered around the love story between Sun and second wife Soong Ching Ling, herself a revered figure in modern Chinese history.

As a result of the VOX program that nurtured this opera into birth, New York was given a preview of the first act of "Dr. Sun Yat Sen" in May. The scene is a high-society party where tycoon Charlie Soong is secretly raising funds for Sun Yat Sen's revolution. Sun’s provincial and soon-to-be ex-wife is introduced. Sun sings of national chaos and revolution. He must flee when he receives word the Qing authorities have put a price on his head.

For a plot that pits “old” China against “new” and Western influences against Chinese, all within the psyche of a single man, transitions are key. For example, how well does the music pivot from heart-pumping, decisive plot point stuff to tender pity-the-country-bumpkin-Sun-will-divorce material?

The 35-year-old Huang sounds confident about his work.

“Sun was a complicated man -- it cannot only be big music, it must also be sensitive music," says Huang.

“I don’t worry about what is ‘Chinese’ or ‘Western.’ I was raised with both musical traditions, with operas from both cultures. I can write what comes naturally; what I feel gives a sense of Sun as a person, and the feelings of the people around him.”

Huang and Chong have built many bridges to facilitate the merging of two musical worlds. The libretto is sung in Chinese and spoken interludes are in English. The choir of New York singers perform in Mandarin, but the score is rendered in phonetic pinyin. A score for an orchestra of Western instruments was rounded out with Chinese percussion.

Huang has also developed a system of musical notation to blend traditional Chinese singing seamlessly into modern Western scores.

Traditional Chinese opera notation is less specific about rhythm than Western opera, giving performers more improvisation space to emote and riff off a single note. But the scale and complexity of a modern opera requires Western-style staff notation.

“In Chinese opera, there is more improvisation in singing, and a more nasal, penetrating sound,” he explains, pointing to a section in the score. “A long note is a chance to bring out more emotion.”

Huang's system of dashes and scribbles indicate the nasal lilt or trill of an improvised note and he gives the singer several beats to run with it, because “it just feels more natural to me this way,” he says.

Composer Huang Ruo demonstrates how he integrates traditional Chinese opera singing into a Western musical manuscript.


The Human Saint

Today, media controls in China still enforce an image of Sun as China’s unvarnished savior; he cuts a mythic figure in films like last year’s “Bodyguards and Assassins.”

Amidst all the political mythmaking, Sun seldom emerges as what he was: a man.

“We hear so much about the politics. I wanted to concentrate on his human side,” says Candace Chong.

Chong is Fujianese, but was raised and educated in colonial Hong Kong, which was mostly insulated from the bitter politics of China’s 20th century.

“Our schoolteachers would mention Sun as our Guofu [national father], but there was not much else -- we knew very little about his personal life, his feelings,” she says. “I heard a wonderful personal story about Sun that inspired me to start writing.”

Chong cites a tale about a wedding present given to Soong Ching-ling by her father, Charlie Soong, who opposed the marriage between his daughter and Sun because of their 26-year age difference. This is despite the patriarch's fervent support for Sun's politics. The family strife surrounding the union is the sort of intimate and messy personal detail often effaced in China’s 20th-century political hagiographies

Hong Kong high notes

After its New York preview and Beijing premiere, “Dr. Sun Yat-sen” will have a homecoming of sorts in Hong Kong. Warren Mok, the tenor and impresario whose Opera Hong Kong commissioned the work, will continue to sing the title role for the Hong Kong Cultural Center Grand Theater debut.

But the orchestra will be different: Huang has scored an alternate version that takes advantage of the illustrious Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra.

This unique ensemble mimics the layout of a Western orchestra, deploying Chinese instruments around a conductor and hiring players familiar with Western-style staff notation and playing techniques.

But they can also read Chinese gongchepu notation and loosen the melody in a more traditional style; their performances often achieve a balance between the symphonic power and precision of a Western orchestra and the lyrical flow and intricate improvisation of a Chinese ensemble.

Hong Kong audiences may have the most to look forward to.

Sun himself was Cantonese, as are most of those weaving this musical story of his life. In addition, the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra will play a full opera for the first time, giving us a first chance to hear how this uniquely modern, uniquely Chinese ensemble will support a quintessentially modern Chinese tale.

"Dr. Sun Yat Sen." Commemorating the Centennial of the 1911 Revolution, An Opera in Three Acts, Commissioned by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and Opera Hong Kong.

World Premiere, September 30 - October 3 at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing, www.chncpa.org

Hong Kong Premiere, October 13-16, Hong Kong Cultural Centre, Grand Theatre, +852 2734 9009. Tickets available at all URBTIX outlets, online at www.urbtix.hk and by credit card telephone booking +852 2111 5999