Writers make notoriously bad subjects for the stage. No matter how dramatic they may seem in their lives or work, their artistic process is by its nature interior and generally devoid of action. The greater the writer, the less chance the portrait will capture the greatness of the actual work.
That said, two festivals this week embraced the challenge, each having commissioned stage works based on the life, work and mythos – in varying proportions – of the Chinese women writers Eileen Chang and Xiao Hong, two near-contemporaries who left mainland China for Hong Kong before the communists came to power.
Of the two, Fall for Eileen Chang, director Li Huan-hsiung’s diptych for the Taiwan International Festival of Arts at the Chiang Kai-Shek Cultural Centre Concert Hall, was at once more ambitious and more successful. Chang, a chronicler first of Shanghai’s pre-communist glory days and later of wartime displacement in Hong Kong, was in effect split in two – not only in terms of sensibility but also in terms of artform, as both an opera and a dance piece unfolded on stage last weekend.
Chung Yiu-kwong’s Love in a Fallen City turned Chang’s novella into a fine, if rather conventional, dance piece, with the story’s lovers represented onstage by dancers Wei Ching-ju and Yeh Wen-hao while traditional Chinese string soloists – erhuist Wang Ming-yu and gaohuist Wang Wei – mirrored the man and the woman respectively. East and west merged smoothly, with players from the Taiwan National Symphony Orchestra alongside the Forum Music Percussion Ensemble, with Chung conducting his own score.
Heart Sutra, an opera by the German composer Christian Jost, was a different experience entirely. Jost fashioned librettist Joyce Chiou’s potentially unwieldy mix of Chang’s poetry and prose into a seamless yet motivated journey where the heroine’s love poetry, internal monologue and dramatic confrontation with her father unfolded by turns in lush (and often polytonal) orchestrations. Jost, also conducting his own work, was blessed with dissimilar yet compatible voices in the silken shimmer of soprano Huang Li-chen, the velvet smoothness of soprano Lin Ling-hui and the chocolate richness of mezzo soprano Weng Jo-pei as their mother. Tenor Han Peng’s clarion lyricism made an imposing father.
The only musical downside in Saturday’s performance was an orchestration often too thick to discern the text. Once again, just because singers were performing in English, producers mistakenly decided that no English surtitles were needed.
The next night at the Hong Kong City Hall Theatre, Chan Hing-yan’s chamber opera Heart of Coral, part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival, countered the perennial problem of over-orchestration with supreme transparency, often with solo instruments. Though occasionally monotonous in its lyricism, neither Chan’s melodies nor the cast’s delivery got much in the way of librettist Yan Yu’s text. Amplification notwithstanding, the singing would probably have held up without it.
Rather, the opera’s problems were in the bigger picture. Far too much prior knowledge was assumed about the subject – who was as emblematic of northern Chinese woman as Eileen Chang was of the south – though that background didn’t seem to help, as many well-read audience members left scratching their heads. Though always pleasant to watch and listen to, Heart of Coral rarely gave the audience any indication of why its characters were on stage or where they were headed.