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Opera Gives New Life to Yang Guifei

Jin Xiang's first opera The Prairie, composed in the mid 1980's, deeply impressed lovers of serious music in China.

After its debut in September 1987 in Beijing and acclaimed performances in the United States, Germany and Switzerland in the following years, The Prairie was marked as a milestone in the history of opera in China, and Jin was dubbed "China's Puccini."

Now, 17 years later, Jin's latest opera The Imperial Concubine Yang Yuhuan, in five acts, will be brought to the stage by the China Opera and Drama Theatre at Tianqiao Theatre on May 30 and 31.

Playwright Ji Fuji has written the libretto for the opera, based on the life of Yang Yuhuan (AD 719-756), better known as Yang Guifei, the favorite concubine of Emperor Xuanzong (AD 685-762) of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).

Yang was good at both singing and dancing, while her brother Yang Guozhong was a powerful but treacherous prime minister.

Xuanzong indulges himself in his infatuation with Yang, but with the empire facing rebellion and turmoil and the emperor on the run in 755, soldiers demand that Yang Guozhong and his sister be executed, blaming them for the problems that have beset the dynasty.

Xuanzong has no choice but to order Yang Yuhuan to hang herself even though he loves her dearly.

The tragic love story of Xuanzong and Yang Yuhuan has been passed down through the ages, becoming a legend. Among the many tales that have accrued to this tragic romance, there is one that claims that Yang Yuhuan did not die but sailed across the sea to Japan.

It is said that there are several Yang Yuhuan tombs in Japan and some temples have statues of her. Ji Fuji has worked this legend into the libretto filling it out with elements of his own imagination: Two Japanese are sent to the land of Tang to learn dance and music from Yang Yuhuan and they bring her back to Japan when the soldiers order her execution.

Soul of opera

The music is the soul of an opera. Jin's melodies have a strong traditional Chinese feel and the singers and critics who have attended the rehearsal all applaud Jin's work.

The veteran composer has definitely created a full, beautiful and poetic score.

In recent years, quite a few Chinese composers such as Tan Dun, Guo Wenjing and Qu Xiaosong have impressed the world music scene with their contemporary operas.

However, at home, few composers try the genre and few opera houses produce Chinese operas.

So we are justified in saying that Jin's Yang Yuhuan brings something new to local opera circles and might stimulate the creation and production of more Chinese operas.

At the age of 69, Jin was as eager as a child during our interview and could not help waving, stepping and making various gestures when he got excited talking about his music and opera.

He was adamant in stating that he is still young and able to keep abreast of new approaches in composing.

He said: "It's not right to judge a composer according to his age. A composer reflects his or her abilities through his or her concepts and techniques. Without a firm grasp of technique, you cannot express your musical concepts; while without interesting musical concepts, technique is useless, or at least limited.

"Music is a very technical art, but technique is not everything. Creative conception is what separates the artist from the craftsman," he said.

"Musical concepts are something complicated. They come from philosophy, aesthetics, literature and even science. They are the keystone in musical composition."

Jin has a very strong academic grounding in technique. He began to learn piano at the age of 7, went to study piano and cello at the then Nanjing National Conservatory of Music at 11, and graduated from the Tianjin Conservatory of Music at 17. He then did research on Chinese traditional and folk music for two years at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where he studied composing for five years.

Jin's music career was stopped by the policital movements starting from the late 1950s and he was sent to work in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region for 20 years.

It was not until 1979 that he came back to the capital as the chief conductor of the Beijing Song and Dance Ensemble (today's Beijing Symphony Orchestra). In 1984, Jin joined the faculty of composition of the China Conservatory of Music.

Between 1990 and 1994, he was a visiting scholar at the University of Washington and at the Julliard School of Music in New York. He also worked as resident composer at the Washington National Opera in Washington DC.

The four years in the United States offered Jin a great opportunity to study Western classical music as well as contemporary trends in composing.

His experience in the United States led him to realize that Western music and Chinese music have different appeals and one is no better or worse than the other. As a Chinese composer, he knows clearly where his advantages and the roots of his creative resources lie.

"I chose to come back to China because my roots are here," he said.

Memorable melodies

As for the opera Yang Yuhuan, it is its melodies that Jin is most satisfied with and most proud of.

For the love story and Yang's expression of her affection for her homeland, her family and friends, he composed nostalgic and lyrical melodies. Many of the opera's arias, duets, trios and choral melodies will long ring in listeners' ears and hearts.

Tenor Fan Jingma, starring as Emperor Xuanzong in cast A, said he was fascinated by the melody as soon as he got the score.

"I have not heard such a melodic Chinese opera. Jin deserves his title as 'China's Puccini.' Some contemporary Chinese composers pursue a modern approach to music, such as the orchestration, but neglect melodic line," Fan said.

Jin said he personally attaches great importance to melody. "The music is the soul of opera and melody is the soul of music.

"The melody is what allures the audience first and many operas are popular because of their arias and melodies. The lack of beautiful melodies is one of the reasons that most contemporary Chinese operas lose audiences."

Beautiful melodies may be the keystone of Jin's operatic music, but his orchestration and structure also demonstrate the composer's talent and technique in composing.

The five acts are connected by a series of 12-tone interludes, and the five acts are presented in five timbres represented by the five elements: metal, fire, earth, wood and water.

The metal act uses splendid brass wind instruments to display the flourishing empire; the fire act features the harp to express the deep love between Yang and Xuanzong.

For the earth act, in which Yang is forced to hang herself at Maweipo, Jin uses the heavy and dignified bass viol and other strings. In the fourth act Jin's score uses wooden percussion instruments such as the marimba, the muyu, a wood zither and some traditional Japanese wood instruments symbolizing Japan. In the fifth act, the harp carries the melody when Yang stands by the sea shore looking back at her homeland across the sea.

"With its sharp contrasts in lighting colors to match the changing timbre of the music in the five acts, my hope is that the opera will be a feast for both the eyes and ears," Jin said.

"A person once asked me how I, a very masculine man, could compose such graceful and delicate melodies for a woman's role. I told him it has nothing to do with the gender. Once I get into the mood of a role, I can write the right notes for the singer, whether the singer is male or female," Jin said with great confidence.

Strong cast

Cast A of the opera, which will perform on opening night, features soprano Wang Yan as Yang Guifei and tenor Fang Jingma as Emperor Xuanzong, while cast B, for the second performance, features soprano Shen Na and tenor Jin Zhengjian.

All the cast and crew say they feel Jin's devotion to the opera.

Fan, a veteran tenor who has sung over 40 operatic roles with many famous opera houses around the world, said he likes the music very much. "When I first got the score, I was amazed by the melodic but challenging arias for Xuanzong and asked Jin whom he had in mind when he composed these arias. The music is wonderful and makes great demands on the singer," Fan said.

"The music and Yang's arias both thrill me. It's a challenging role. I know that the composer, Mr Jin has poured his passion into the score without thinking much about who would sing these roles. So I will try my best to do Yang's role justice," said Wang Yan, Yang Yuhuan in cast A.

Conductor Zhang Zheng looks excited in rehearsals. He also said he has not conducted such a great Chinese opera for quite a long time and believes many of the arias will become popular soon.

Director Li Daochuan also contributes a lot to the opera. Having studied acting at the Shanghai Academy of Drama, directing at the Central Academy of Drama and having once been a singer with the China Central Opera Theatre, Li is one of the very few Chinese directors experienced in both drama and classical music as well as being experienced in opera.

Moreover, Li is Jin's wife. The unspoken understanding between husband and wife is certain to have a positive influence on her interpretation of her husband's music.

Performance Details:


Dates: may 30-31


Venue: Tianqiao Theatre


Ticket Price: 580, 380, 180, 80

(China Daily May 26, 2004)

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