a.k.a. The 5,4,3,2,1 of Wang Jie on Composing Opera
By Cori Ellison and Wang Jie
2 Operatic Moments as the Bedrock of Operalized Stories
An audience member once told me that, at first, my Symphony No.2 took him to a place he didn’t know existed. The more he looked around the new terrain, the more familiarity he discovered, the more he engaged. My opera work doesn’t fall far from the tree.
As I mentioned, I seek authenticity in my operas ( i.e. the one secret ingredient I regard as the core value of this art form: operatic moments - telling stories that must sing). I find myself wondering what kind of stories obsess me and whether any story can be “operalized?”
Adaptations of existing literature are common in the new opera rep. But when I follow my operatic ideals, I find the greatest resonance in Myth and its manifestations, in a thousand guises across the historical and cultural gamut. This is where I wish Joseph Campbell were in the room.
An exciting part of giving birth to an opera story is to shape well-established characters into a narrative that triggers Operatic Moments. Once everything works, characters mythologize and they resonate with us through theatrical and musical metaphors.
My music is a synthesis, too. Audiences hear a multitude of influences in my bloodstream: “Mahler, Stravinsky, and Ligeti all conversing in French” is one way to put it. Perhaps a dash of Wagner, Mozart, Puccini. There may even be mysterious sound fragrances, such as Chinese traditional opera, Indian classical music, African, Afro-Cuban (thanks to my neighbor), etc, etc. What you will notice as you meet me in person or listen to my music is that hardly any verbal and cultural accent is detectable.
I choose not to compose "Chinese" music. Rather, I bring the Chinese perspectives into my work. Fortunately, more people are recognizing the value of synthesis thinking in an era of Globalism.
4 Emotion: the female composer has an advantage.
Neuroscience is the new black! Recent research revealed much about the female brain that helped me understand my creative motivation better. For example, an average female brain has 11% more neurons than the male in the brain centers for language and hearing. The principal hub of both emotion and memory formation - the hippocampus - is also larger in the female brain. This means that women are, on average, better at expressing emotions and remembering the details of emotional events.
On one hand, I know this to be true because you may find me sitting in NYC traffic on a Saturday afternoon, the Met live broadcast blasting La bohème out of my car speaker. I’m the teary-eyed wreck at whom the driver behind me yells “Move it, moron!” On the other hand, Puccini was not a female composer. And I always take fashionable social studies with a grain of salt.
I point out that these neuroscience claims are based on “average” public surveys. Artists, both male and female, live in the exceptions. The repertoire is rich with both female and male composers’ output that inflame my deepest emotions. The choices are in individual composers’ hands. When I compose, I choose to engage that extra female emotional brain, boosting my operas with intensified theatrical emotions. This is my way of passing forward the magic spell of opera.
My goal is to create a rewarding theatrical experience mostly involves waves of emotional rapture. To accomplish this, I capitalize on my feminine emotional immediacy and my musical vocabulary evolve to articulate myriad shades of theatrical emotions. In this way, I began gaining precious freedom to express a wide spectrum of theatrical emotions with intensity, sensitivity and integrity. It’s a long process and I’m getting better at it year in year out.
Further, the exhilaration and hardship of my life as a modern-day female feed directly into my creating 3-dimensional female characters that reflect our modern conditions. In my operas, a strong female character is foremost feminine, continue to lure the Male Gaze - civilization’s strongest hormone. She is tragic for her strength, never the stereotypical feminine weaknesses. She is strong for her independence, never her incarnations of masculinity.
For example, the Lark (the heroine in From the Other Sky) challenges her employers with a dose of artistic disobedience and suddenly her employment is busted. Instead of begging for mercy, her response is “Fuck you asshole!” (not in these exact words, of course.) Deercry, the heroine in From the Land Fallen, functions as her husband’s equal. When an external force shatters the partnership, she faces unthinkable ordeals to reorient herself and to complete the partnership's mission under startlingly new conditions. Farewell My Concubine juxtaposes three female characters: two as traditional monarchy roles, contrasting the distinguished one who embodies the strength and tragedy I mentioned above. I’m greatly excited about composing radically vacillating music to bring alive the character contrast in this opera!
I am humbled by the work of both male and female composers of our time. Where do I fit in? In my current work, nothing is more timely and urgent than help renew the repertoire with real female characters who are highly relevant to modern sensibilities of womanhood. My inclination to mythologize contemporary female life into theatrical viscera is, in purely artistic terms, the most valuable work I can accomplish in my next few operas.
FIVE qualities you pursue in your opera works?
1 Absolute Unconditional Trust in the Power, Integrity and Expressiveness of Music
I empathize with the hesitance that portions of the musical public and some industry leaders feel about the new opera repertoire. Certain 20th century musical aesthetics has been particularly hard on the audiences’ ears. Great topic for another day, but I was especially tickled when I came across Richard Taruskin’s opening chapter on 20th century music (Oxford History of Western Music), calling music Modernism a “commitment”. It is as if two disintegrating spouses in couple’s therapy finding justifications to honor a piece of marriage certificate.
If real love is the authentic agent that bonds matrimony, let intoxicating music be the foremost agent that bonds the opera house to the audiences. When the music is strong, regardless of its stylistic traits – Neo-classicism, Minimalism, Maximism, Dadaism, Post-romanticism, opera touches people in ways no other art form can compare. When the music is weak, neither a first-rate librettist, a brilliant creative team, nor star casts can counteract this grave oversight. The piece just won’t resonate for the real opera lovers in your house, much less for prospective opera lovers. There are too many other places where the public can experience a great story, production and stars. But there is only one place for a great story to be brought alive by great music, uniting production and stars - the opera house.
This is the reason I get up in the morning: to “Engage • Explore • Play” in the power, integrity and expressiveness of music.
1 Empathy: I care, therefore I listen.
15 years of listening to my audiences, it still bothers me profoundly when my work elates some, but not all of them. People keep telling me that engaging everyone is impossible. I just don’t buy it. If Mahler set the bar at “the symphony must be like the world, embracing EVERYTHING.” and his work resonates within hearts and minds from Venezuela to China, why shouldn’t I strive for the same in the opera house?
Don’t be surprised that I get “high” on interaction with my colleagues and audiences. Their stories feed my pattern-recognition engine! In reciprocation, I strive to draw them into artistic rapture with my transformation of nutritious ingredients they provide. In such an ideal world, where my handiwork reflects the community’s heart and mind, why wouldn’t the audience come back for more?
2 Skill: the virtuosity of my music can be challenging for performers at first, but the two main threads of feedback I keep hearing from singers and performers are these:
a) Your music is hard. But once I learned it, it suddenly all made sense.
b) I’m so glad I met you in person. Now I understand my character perfectly.
3 Synthesis: a little bird once told me that the world sees me as a Chinese composer. I giggled for a thousand and one nights.
Don’t let the looks fool you. I can play the “cute Asian girly chick" when it's appropriate. But the “butch tomboy estrogen magnet” has its uses, too. Sometimes I just give a death stare until you take out your checkbook.
The repertoire is rich with both female and male composers’ output that inflame my deepest emotions...the exhilaration and hardship of my life as a modern-day female feed directly into my creating 3-dimensional female characters that reflect our modern conditions. In my current work, nothing is more timely and urgent than help renew the repertoire with real female characters who are highly relevant to modern sensibilities of womanhood.. .
Second, I work with a sound world familiar to most concertgoers, enhanced by just a splash of “weirdness”; or, as Jim Davies put it: “Too little order is confusing, too much order is boring. The sweet spot is that area where tantalizing contradictions are visible, but the stimulus gives us an inkling of a hidden order that can be figured out. Although our minds always want to minimize surprise and confusion, we’ll grow rather bored without a little disruption to our patterns. Most people prefer designs that are rather conventional, but include just one unusual feature." In other words, the average audience loves the sound worlds established by their favorite opera composers but yearns for the flavors of something new.
Third, I work with stories that are designed to resonate for multiple cultures and ethnic communities. (See "Operatic Moments as the Bedrock of Operalized Stories" below for more on that.)
Last but not least, I am willing and able to help shape a collaborator’s ideas toward operatic authenticity. In fact, I rely on my colleagues’ different perspectives to enrich my work.
3 Finding the game changers
True story: Losing their three star players, the cash-strapped Oakland A's of Major League Baseball looked like organ donors for the rich teams. Desperate to compete, GM Billy Beane teams with rookie player analyst Peter Brand to turn traditional baseball on its head. (Who? Click here for a quick study.) After many an uphill battle against old-school thinkers, the guys superimposed an algorithm which instantly transformed the A's into a sensation and broke a long-standing Major League winning streak record. Beane and Brand's work revolutionized the game of baseball. As the word got out, their prototype enabled the Red Sox to break the 90-year-curse and win the 2004 Championship.
Marcel Proust seemed to prophesy Billy Beane: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
If you put up with my sports metaphor, I’ll go one step further and say: when Derek Jeter hits a homerun, the world immediately sees it. When a composer “hits a homerun” (i.e. a piece of music as good as it gets), chances are, the world won’t see it until decades later, often when the composers is busy decomposing six feet under. And this is an agonizing frustration that permeates the artistic industry: what does it take to find our modern-day Mozart?
Believe me, if there were a Mozart pill, I’d be the first in line to take it. But talent alone doesn’t add up to the magnitude of his achievement. It took Mozart decades of deliberate work to arrive at Die Zauberflöte. Along this lengthy journey of artistic endeavor, various forms of patronage ensured the liveliness of this composer’s often “not so fashionable” visions. Someone early on in Mozart’s career took a chance on a hunch that he would eventually pan out. I am on the early part of a similar journey. I look forward to more happy occasions when my visions are mirrored, friendships form and operas sung.
This is the first pivotal scene in Moneyball, the film based on Beane and Brand's revolution. I just love Billy’s response after hearing Pete’s pitch.
FOUR aspects folks working with you should know?
The headline is: you are dealing with a Female Androgynous-Brainer. The subtitle is: I’ve been marvelously tutored by mostly Male Left-Brainers all my life. Punchline: I turned out okay!
Thanks to great mentors, I spend most of my life building skills towards my true will as a boundary crosser, an inventor and a metaphor maker. Although I found the Right-Brain theory helpful to explain my inclination for systems thinking (a.k.a. Gestalt thinking, holistic thinking, seeing the big picture), I credit my female brain for the empathy and emotional urge I carry throughout my artistic work. So the top four aspects are: Empathy, Skill, Synthesis, and emotion.
The way I see it, hardship keeps people humble, makes them more resourceful, forces them to think outside the box, eliminates the players who forget to keep their eyes on the ball. Although hardship is not required for thinking outside the box, I do notice an industry-wide increased interest in independent composers such as myself, who runs a smaller “boutique” operation out of a studio apartment. Timing seems perfect for me to carry out the “link” work:
Being an artistic guardian of the industry, I continue to produce work that are fruitions of my passion. Living up to this inspiration, I create professionally produced blueprints, enabling performing artists to be powerful and magical. (They are the faces of our industry. I want them to look/sound ridiculously good!) This first part of the work is more familiar than the second part: getting my work out there. All I’ll say for now is that I am indebted to the individual support I’ve received over the years (you know who you are). And God Bless Opera America! Being a cultural ambassador to the public, I educate and share my passion of opera with as many people as I can reach. In addition to my work in the classroom, not to exaggerate, I’m worried about how to convert my UPS delivery guy into an opera lover. This is no trivial matter to me.
In practice, I aim to devote the rest of my artistic life to creating a body of opera works that reflect the following four aspirations.
First, I work with ideas that must be expressed through opera. (See One Secret Ingredient above)
...if the 2-million-dollar question on Civic Impact is "How do I get my communities to sign off Netflix, put on a pair of good shoes and come out to the opera?” then the 5-million-dollar question for composers would be: “Now that they are here, what can I do to entice them back for more?” I believe it becomes the responsibility of composers to reverse the audience participation decline.
TWO traits that characterizes you as an opera composer?
1 While music is my first language and operates in the forefront of my consciousness, I’m a dramatist at heart. Storytelling drives my creative force. Setting foot in the theater excites the hell out of me. But here’s the catch: 30 years and counting, I’ve been trained rigorously as a musical creature. So my compositions tell stories that should only be told through dramatic music. Opera is my most natural outlet. I contend that my instrumental music carries that narrative urge as well.
2 I am compelled not only by the beauty of the Bel Canto voice, but also by its enormous expressive range. From its exquisite delicacy to its full declamatory power, not unlike that of a sixty-five piece symphonic orchestra. This combination of powerful forces is home to me. To engage the full intensity and spectrum of my dramatic sensibility, I need the full package that opera offers.
THREE urgent and timely issues in opera your works aim to tackle?
1 Audience participation in opera has decreased from 3% to 2% in the last 20 years.
This was the data that Alan Brown presented during Opera America Conference 2014. It confirmed my perception that, despite the massive investments in recent productions, the public’s interest in our great art form continues to decline. Alan left composers, dead or alive, out of his presentation. However, if this trend is to be reversed, I believe it becomes the responsibility of composers to reverse it.
If, for industry leaders, the 2-million-dollar question on Civic Impact is "How do I get my communities to sign off Netflix, put on a pair of good shoes and come out to the opera?” then the 5-million-dollar question for composers would be: “Now that they are here, what can I do to entice them back for more?”
By championing more new works, Opera America and other pioneering companies proclaim the clear message that living composers are essential to opera’s survival. Not just in opera but classical music in general, there is a rising awareness that composers are at the core of a metabolic mechanism which sustains the art form. Having spent many years contemplating my relevance and effectiveness to the industry and the public, I am convinced that mastering the artistic material is indeed the center of a composer’s lifelong commitment to musical excellence. Nevertheless, it is the work in the peripheral that will help strengthen a composer’s relevance and effectiveness.
Somewhere between the isolated task of composing and my amateurish entrepreneur attempts, the peripheral work I embrace are: a) be an artistic guardian of the industry; b) be a cultural ambassador to the public. These extra-curricular elements lead me to...
2 Strengthen the link between the industry and the public.
Bemoaning the death of classical music is the oldest trick in the book (and it hasn’t worked according to this author). What I take away from this kind of media/academic frenzy is that a cry for more artistic relevance and rapture are being masked as criticism towards the industry’s troubles in reaching a wider public, i.e. the steady decline of audience participation. Let’s not forget, the economy doesn’t make things easier, does it?
What is the ONE secret ingredient that makes an opera?
I see that we are starting with the hard questions. There are many ingredients. But if I have to choose one, I’d say the most crucial requirement is Operatic Moments. An Operatic Moment is a unique type of dramatic action in which a musical idea or the act of singing becomes the food of the narrative and mover of the plot. In other words, a moment in drama that has to sing.
We hear it a lot: opera is the powerful union of music, drama, literature and theater. But what force holds them all together? My answer above situates opera in the context of all dramatic forms. It has less to do with what opera has been, could have been, or could be but with more what it must be. It’s a question of opera’s dramatic authenticity.
Consider the moment in opera’s infancy when its future became assured: Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Orpheus arrives at the gate of the Underworld. Does he bring a jug of gold? A painting? Loaded AK-47? No. Believing that the only force to awaken love and attain mercy is music (after all, his music turns rocks into flowers!), the daring young hero unveils a fragile little Lyre and sings his heart out! This operatic moment gave the story a reason to continue and ignited the theatrical mutation from a play to an Opera.
A song so divine that it moves the gate keeper of the underworld? This is the moment in which a spoken drama must burst into song in order to function. Once the operatic/musical reality takes hold, there is no turning back. (Ha! What happened when Orpheus turned to look back?) The only possible device which can advance this story lies in the hands of a composer. Operatic Moments distinguish opera from all other dramatic forms, becoming what marketing gurus call "Non-substituable Luxury Goods." This authentic ingredient, I believe, ensures opera's long-term vitality.
Reversely, look within the historical context of opera, Operatic Moments manifest in rich arrays of music forms and practices. For example, Simultaneity - from duets to ensemble utterances - is a dramatic phenomenon unnatural to the spoken theater yet uniquely effective in opera. But this is topic for another day when a better opera historian is in the room.
There are too many other places where the public can experience a great story, production and stars. But there is only one place for a great story to be brought alive by great music, uniting production and stars - the opera house.
My 30-minute chamber opera From the Other Sky, expressed this "operalized" ideal. A) Who doesn’t know the twelve Chinese Zodiac animals? B) I bet nobody knows the thirteenth Zodiac, a Lark, because I made her up to prepare the narrative for that Operatic Moment. C) To articulate the contrasting realities of the Zodiacs and that of the human world, I designed two drastically contrasting styles of music: the virtuosic but prosaic music for the Zodiacs vs. the simple but heartfelt music from the humans. D) The Lark is summoned to discover the human reality. She comes back with the “disease” of human music – Bingo! This is an Operatic Moment in which the Lark accidentally exposes the opposing aesthetics of music in one Aria, a dramatic action only possible through music. I'd love to have you watch the opera and find out what happens to the poor Lark.
Thanks to a hit film production, the story of Farewell My Concubine is now known throughout the world. To “operalize” this story, I cast the Concubine as a court singer who is invested with divine musical power. This power earns her the King’s devotion and his people’s allegiance. But her musical power also ignites a war that brings the fall of the King and the ultimate sacrifice of love: death. Several pivotal points in the narrative require a singing event, during which a dramatic message is delivered by music to advance the plot.
The possibilities are infinite and invite all sorts of interesting collaborations among producing and creative teams.
To my mind, opera suffers when the flow of libretto dictates the form of music. Musical form must be there first, guiding the proportion, rhythm and unfolding of the words. To think Mozart could have pulled off this brilliant opening of Figaro, should Da Ponte have stuffed 500 epic words down his throat?
I realize this is a debatable topic both historically and contemporarily, complicated by varied collaborative dynamics. In addition to Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and Mahler (yes, Mahler!) are among my favorite heroes in libretto treatment. An important aspect of Verdi’s la parola scenica emphasizes the dramatization of poetry into clean and plain language, enabling the character to erupt dramatic intensity rather than to recite perfect verses, freeing the music from the rhythm of the text. Wagner needed both music and words to serve his dramatic ideals, whichever one takes the lead largely depends on moments of theatrical situations. It is reasonable to say that Mahler was preparing himself for operatic output by composing, among others, the monumental Symphony No.8, where he altered word orders and curved several words out of Veni, creator spiritus to better suit his musical flow.
By prioritizing music over text, one might suspect that I’ve sided with Mozart, who famously stated: “In an opera the poetry simply must be the music’s obedient daughter.”
All I can say is that I don’t see the above three notions to be conflicting practices. There is no doubt that without a strong libretto, operas crash. My current work with my librettist pays homage to all my opera heroes. What my team might add is a borrowed form of cubism that enables the flow of words to "paint" an imagery rather than describing it.
4 Treat dialogue with extreme care!
In spoken theater the narrative momentum is primarily carried by words. In opera, things get more complicated, where music - a metaphoric language - must dance with words, a lexiconic language. In Neo-Latin languages, words are rhythmically bound for its comprehension. The traditional operatic format of recitative (free of meter) alternating with aria (metrical) works well for this very reason. In other cases, words are temporarily suspended to give way to music. For example, Wagner’s tönendes schweigen (sounding silence) slowed down theatrical time for music to express a moment of feelings to a lengthening duration commensurate with its significance in the drama, while the feeling might be no more than a passing instant in a play.
Dialogue, if treated casually, can intrude the operatic reality with that of a play. Unless certain alteration effects are required, an opera largely driven by dialogue can be exhausting for musical freedom. In some cases, I use spoken dialogue to create “camp” effect. Other times, my theatrical emotions demand a moment of highly charged feelings, in which dialogues are colored by swiftly contrasting musical treatment.
For example, in this excerpt (fast forward to 3:11), the sparks of dialogue are spoken and I stop the music flow to offer spoken text special treatment. In contrast, in this second except, the lovers’ dialogue quickly escalates into an argument. All of the text is sung, but the music for each characterizes different mindsets and the pace of the music saturates the looming tragedy the heroine will shortly face. In both cases, dialogues are treated with careful measures to ensure the idiosyncrasy of operatic time, and a theatrical reality which differs from that of a play.
5 Harmonic coherence as a vital channel for emotional engagement
This part is the theoretical extension of my previous point regarding the emotional freedom I experience in engaging my “female brain”. Without dishing out a major chapter of my doctorate dissertation, let me just state that I have found coherent harmonic writing to be a requirement of fine-tuned emotional articulation in opera. I find harmony to be by far the most effective vehicle in Western music for the hundreds of shades of theatrical emotions.
Jie, I'm guessing that a composer who is dedicated to story as much as to music is a rather unusual creature. Where does this impulse come from?
Oh where do I start? I guess I hang out with cats in theater/film/Television circles for WAY too long. As luck would have it, I've been closely associated with story mavens Christopher Vogler and David McKenna for the past six years. They've influenced me. David tells me that I've influenced them, too. When he and Chris published their latest book on story analysis - MEMO FROM THE STORY DEPARTMENT, David dedicated his chapters to me.
Let me close by recalling Alan Brown’s presentation during Opera America’s 2014 Conference in which he left composers, living or dead, out of the picture. I hope this lengthy document is at least clear about one thing: the composer is all ears. Are you?