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Ancient Chinese tale captivates audience

By Zhao Xu | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-10-19 10:53
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Cai Jindong, director of Bard's US-China Music Institute, conducts the opera at New York's Rose Theatre in Lincoln Center on Saturday. PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY

What would an ancient Chinese ghost story conjure up in the mind of a Western operagoer? An apparition, with a glacial face framed by long black hair, dressed in white robe? A college professor and his brunette wife clad in a robe?

It turns out one can have both while still being able to experience Chinese culture. In a stellar performance at New York's Rose Theatre in Lincoln Center on Saturday, the audience was mesmerized by the beauty of the "ghost", captivated by the sounds and occasional humor, before unveiling the story's moral lesson.

The story, adapted from the 18th-century Chinese ghost story, was the US-China Music Institute of Bard College Conservatory of Music's first opera production. It was originally written by one of the most profound storytellers. It acknowledged the humanity of a ghost genuinely upset at the hypocrisy of the humans, the façade they have assiduously maintained, and the righteousness they have often deceived themselves into believing.

When Pu Songling (1640-1715) wrote the Painted Skin, he cautioned the audience as he did with the other ghost stories he's known for today. "How foolish are the people of this world! In which is clearly bewitching they think beautiful," a message directed to his reader after concluding the tale in which an educated young man abandoned his wife for a beauty he encountered and became enthralled with. The price the heartless man paid for his lust is his heart, snatched by the beauty who revealed herself to be a demon disguised under a painted human skin.

In the original tale, the demon was defeated by a Daoist monk, while the unfaithful husband was brought to life by his forgiving wife. Presumably there would be plenty of repentance, followed by marriage. In the version, the pair, thrown under much harsher light with a surprising twist and turns, was denied a happy ending.

The one who did it was no other than the demon itself. In the final act, the demon came to the husband and reminded him of his vow, which he brushed away as nothing more than a poetry.

The demon, infuriated, took his true form, and watched as a couple turned against each other. The husband pleaded to take the "kind heart" of his wife, who's now more than willing to yield her husband to the demon. The demon took both hearts, only to toss them back at its victims after finding them – perhaps not so surprisingly – tainted and undesirable. The performance concluded when the couple, regaining consciousness, grappled with what they thought of each other and their marriage.

A face-off between the wife and the demon. PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Michael Hofmann, the production's director, said it was difficult to disagree with the demon's assessment given that "humanity's violent histories and atrocities," mentioned in the 5th China Now Music Festival booklet.

"It may benefit us all to examine what kind of evil lies beneath our own painted skins," said Hofmann, who lamented on "this national context of an increasingly violent reality for Asian-Americans" following the COVID-19 outbreak in April 2020, and on the importance to showcase "a fundamentally Chinese work of art" against this backdrop.

Hofman, a Bard alum, was hesitant when he first approached by Cai Jindong, who conducted the opera's 24-piece orchestra and the director of Bard's US-China Music Institute. Since its 2018 debut in Shanghai, the opera, composed by Hao Weiya of Beijing's Central Conservatory of Music to a libretto by Chinese author-playwright Wang Yuanfei, had always been played by a Chinese cast.

For Cai, who has headed the institute since 2017, he aimed at bringing an American sensibility in a production in which Western audience can relate.

One result is to transport the story from ancient China to modern America, thus the college professor of literature and his American wife with a clear penchant for Oriental dresses. The man and his betrayed wife, played by mezzo-soprano Kristin Gornstein and soprano Holly Flack, sang in Chinese. They both have received coaching. The Western-style opera singing, and body languages contrasted with and complemented the rendition of the lead demon character, played by Chinese traditional Kungqu opera singer Yang Ling, whose performance brought a mystery befitting her spectral character.

Here comes a real-life twist: Yang only came to personify the demon after the lead actress came down with COVID. If it only took Yang a reported three days of rehearsal to get under the skin of a ghost, she certainly didn’t let it show. Her presence, in turns hair-raising and electrifying, was magnified by the spare stage design, the emphatic lighting and the haunting music punctuated by the climatic sounds of the percussion instruments.

The first opera the US-China Institute has produced, Painted Skin – A Chamber Opera seeks to inject profundity into an ancient tale by acknowledging the humanity of a ghost genuinely upset at the hypocrisy of the humans, the façade they have assiduously maintained, and the righteousness they have often deceived themselves into believing.

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