February 7, 2002, Thursday
THE ARTS/CULTURAL DESK
OPERA REVIEW; A Heartstrings Tug of War: Husband vs. Homeland
By ANNE MIDGETTE
It's the story of a woman, abducted
from her native land, who's forced to choose between love and
country: the stuff of which operas are made. It's based on a
historical figure, Cai Wenji, whose life has inspired many stage
works. And since ''Wenji: Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute''
by Bun-Ching Lam portrays a heroine caught between two linguistic
and artistic idioms, unsure which represents her true home,
it has contemporary autobiographical overtones as well.
That's because Ms. Lam, born in Macao, lives in New York, and
her music incorporates both Eastern and Western elements. And
in her operatic adaptation of Wenji's, which premiered at the
Asia Society last Thursday night, this contrast expresses the
work's basic dramatic tension.
The score juxtaposes East and West: cello and zhonghu, oboe
and dizi. The libretto moves between Chinese and English. And
the three performers represent two distinct traditions with
the Beijing Opera on the one hand (Zhou Long, the acclaimed
performer and director, takes the Chinese roles) and Western
opera singing on the other. Ethan Her schenfeld, a booming basso,
plays the Hun general Zuoxian, who abducts Wenji and takes her
for his wife. The woman who is caught between these two poles
is played by Li Xiuying, an opera singer who is Chinese, singing
Chinese lyrics in a full, Western, operatic voice.
The work's creators form a parallel triangle: in addition to
Ms. Lam, there's Xu Ying, a playwright, representing the Chinese
tradition, and Rinde Eckert, who directed, the American one.
What they've produced is an elegant, slightly static but beautifully
crafted piece that's conveyed in clear gestures, spare but not
The Chinese elements furnish a lot of the spark; pipa (a lute-like
instrument) and zhonghu (a lower cousin of the erhu) act as
the flickering inspiration to heat and lift the larger, more
lumbering Western-opera expressions. Cello and bass clarinet,
on the other hand, hover in low sustained notes to express the
Hun's hulking menace (although the Hun's first appearance is
signaled by a brief burst of jazz).
There's a special role for the guqin, the plucked zither that
was Wenji's own instrument. In the story Zuoxian breaks her
guqin, then obtains a new one for her when he sees her heartache
at its loss. In the score the solo guqin line, with its mournful
fourths, incorporates a few passages of traditional Chinese
music (Mr. Xu's text also works in traditional elements: excerpts
from the historical Wenji poetry).
Underlining the energy and color of the Chinese musical elements
is the virtuosic Mr. Zhou, who has physical virtuosity as well
as musical ability. Now a clownlike henchman, now Wenji's bearded
father, now a Chinese warrior pirouetting through a graphically
mimed battle scene, Mr. Long carries expressivity to the tips
of his fingers, which vibrate rapidly in one passage, to illustrate
at once the fire that's burning his books and his character's
anguish at their loss. In contrast, Mr. Herschenberg, a singer
of imposing stature, impressive voice and rather clumsy vocal
technique, seems every inch the barbarian.
Ms. Li does a beautiful job with a very taxing and difficult
role, which includes perhaps one too many melancholy arias of
loss, delivered in a sweet and powerful voice. One of the work's
most poignant moments is her last scene: swaying in indecision
between Zuoxian and their children and a return to China, she
sings quietly, sadly, in the middle of her voice, dying away
to a final, closing piano. In this version the story's ending
is ambiguous, Wenji's choice uncertain. Whatever she decides,
it's clear, she will have to lose a piece of herself.
Published: 02 -07-2002, Late Edition - Final, Section E, Column
1, Page 8