Two opera productions recently saw their debut in the United States: Liza Lim’s fourth opera Tree of Codes
, staged anew by Singaporean director Ong Ken Sen in the framework of the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, and an extended version of An American Soldier
by Huang Ruo given its world premiere at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. An interview with conductor Michael Christie, specialized in the production of contemporary operas, allows us to gain an impression of Huang Ruo’s music, the special role of opera within political discourse and the current situation facing this art form in the United States.
Liza Lim: Tree of Codes (2015)
‘Cut-outs in time’, an opera
S.Bar.Sp – 18.104.22.168 – 22.214.171.124 –
perc – pf – 126.96.36.199.1 – live-el
WP: 9.4.2016, Cologne
More about the work
Tree of Codes, Spoleto Festival USA 2018
"What that extra-ordinary time and space looks like is something I leave to the director…", Limelight Magazine quotes Liza Lim. "The multiple stories in the opera are, for me, about opening up emotional or psychic spaces. For the audience, I hope that people will see different things and plug into different aspects of the stories depending on their frame of mind at the time. If there is a ‘story’, it is about the basic ephemerality that attends our lives and our deaths, and a longing for intensity, iridescence, for epiphany.“ (Limelight Magazine, 19.05.2018)
Read the article online
Huang Ruo: An American Soldier (2018)
Opera in two acts (full-length version)
Libretto: David Henry Hwang
2S.Ms.T.Bar.Bbar.B – vocal ensemble –
188.8.131.52. – 184.108.40.206. – 2perc – str
WP: Opera Theatre of St. Louis, 2018
Interview with Michael Christie
Mr Christie, in June you’ll be conducting the premiere of the expanded, full-length version of An American Soldier. The opera depicts young Danny Chen, the son of Chinese immigrants, who is proud to join the US Army, but, finding himself there a victim of xenophobia, he questions the meaning of patriotism, cultural identity and “otherness” and is ultimately and tragically crushed by his situation. This raises intensely topical questions about what it means to be an American. Is opera an appropriate medium for this discussion?
Opera is a perfect medium for this topic as it allows the audience to experience many bold angles as well as nuanced emotion on the topics raised. The audience is able to connect with the concepts presented over time rather than a 30 second television summary.
How is the subject expressed in Huang Ruo’s music?
There is an emotional tension between the events as they happened in “real life” and how Danny Chen recalls them in his memories throughout the score. Huang Ruo keeps the listeners’ ears close to the drama with thematic unity through the work.
In the New York Times you have been described as “a director open to adventure and challenge”. Where do you see the challenges in An American Soldier for you as conductor?
I’m always trying to dive deeply into the composer’s emotional language and advocate for it with the vocalists and instrumentalists. Composers are always evolving their musical language so I think it’s important to be as open as I can be and then make sure to allow that point of view to be heard as clearly as possible.
What has been your experience collaborating with Huang Ruo?
Huang Ruo has been a gracious collaborator. He is fully invested in the decisions he has made to make the drama come to life as he sees it and supports the development process of those charged with realizing his vision.
As music director of Minnesota Opera, among other posts, you have realized numerous contemporary opera productions. What obstacles do projects like An American Soldier face given the current background of cultural and political change in the United States?
Culturally, we are experiencing a surge of new work with emerging artists in the opera field in particular. The challenge, rather than obstacle is the learning curve producers are experiencing for supporting new work. However, people are getting behind the workshop process more effectively and engaging with more artists to support the potential of new work - there are a lot of barriers being confronted and broken down. In many ways, we are still grappling with the repercussions of the Global Financial Crisis, a tight labor market and intense competition for private support. The good news is that by and large, the idea of new American opera isn’t a new concept to most audiences. Now we must focus on making sure the topics make sense to be expressed in this genre, the storytelling is clear and the music takes the listener on a compelling journey. Put that together with the other artisans involved in opera and we have a strong formula for success going forward.
Photos: Leigh Webber (Tree of Codes), Michal Daniel (Michael Christie)