Opera has been a “western” art for centuries. But when the “eastern” world produces it, the experience can be truly riveting.
Such is the case with “Datong: The Chinese Utopia,” composer Chan Hing-yan’s three-Act work that took Hong Kong by storm and is set to do the same in just a few days.
Following the story of philosopher Kang Youwei and his daughter Kang Tongbi, the opera spans almost a century of history looking at a number of major issues that powered and changed the 20th century. The opera was such a huge hit in 2015 when it first had its world premiere at the Hong Kong Arts Festival that it now has the chance to make a similar impact in London when it premieres in the “Western” world at the Richmond Theatre on July 27 and 28.
From Hong Kong to London
What makes “Datong” unique is that it combines musical traditions from the west with those of Asia to create a universal piece of art.
“Producing opera isn’t really something that happens often in Hong Kong. And especially not one with Western traditions,” stated Hong Kong Arts Festival Director Tisa Ho. “But back in 2015, people thought it was well-executed and we had achieved a level of artistic success. People were very proud of the talent that we have in Hong Kong.”
One of the great challenges of bringing this opera to Europe is the subject matter itself.
“In Hong Kong, it wasn’t difficult to get the word out. [Youwei] is a recognized figure over,” Ho explained. “For London, he isn’t a name that everyone recognizes. It’s a not a name that trips off the tongue down the street. We need to work on explaining why this is an important opera.”
And important it is from a thematic point of view.
“People will be amazed by how relevant it is to today’s world,” Ho noted.
Taking on Contemporary Issues
Throughout the opera, the two characters take on such issues as Immigration policy in the US as well as what it means to be a modern woman in a conservative world. And Ho notes that some of those issues still resonate today.
“At one point, the characters meet with then-President Teddy Roosevelt to discuss the Chinese Exclusion Act,” she noted. “The opera asks a lot of questions about this. How do we deal with people coming in? Migration issues? Identity issues? These were questions we asked then and we are still asking today. Just look at what is happening in the US.”
[The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882 while Roosevelt passed the Immigration Act of 1907 into law.]
The modern woman’s role also plays a crucial role in the opera, particularly with most of it played out through Tongbi’s perspective.
“She was a witness to all of her father’s life’s work. And if you think about it, at the time, this was unusual. This was liberal,” Ho noted about the female protagonist traveling around the world with her father. “The first scene begins with someone commenting on her bound feet. Women had bound feet at the time, but she did not have bound feet. And that already places a lot of values of the character and the time. It says a lot. And her life, how she travels, her dress, the way she lived, is carried all the way to the end.”
One of the most painful moments for Ho comes right at the end when the character is dying. The opera takes a look at just how a society can damage and hinder progress with the simplest of actions.
“As she lies dying at the end, and for me as a woman, this is emotional, her daughter is breaking the heels of her high-heeled shoes. This is a symbol of her mother’s decadent life that is no longer acceptable. It hits me quite hard.”
Mixing Styles & Languages
In creating the massive opera, which was written by acclaimed filmmaker Evan Chan, the Hong Kong Arts Festival knew that it needed a composer capable of balancing the intersecting worlds and themes of the opera. The choice proved rather straightforward with Hing-yan.
The composer and festival had previously collaborated on another opera before in 2013. So the relationship had already been established to solid results.
But it presented a unique challenge for the composer because he immediately realized that he would need to compose in more than one language – English and Chinese. Despite being Chinese himself, he found his native language more difficult to write for.
“[The] Chinese language is very complex than the western languages because the Chinese language itself suggests contours, “Hing-yan told OperaWire. “So the first thing is I look at the contour and then I compose the recitative or music to those lines. That is very different from writing an English opera. That is the hardest part.
“With English, there is more freedom,” he added. “There is no need to follow a particular contour.”
Writing the music for the distinct languages offered him another challenge – mixing styles. Hing-yan noted that the opera, because it spans an entire century, already suggested a need to mix styles and he embraced this opportunity to explore different kinds of music.
“For the Chinese language, the libretto has poems by the philosopher,” he noted. “They are always seven characters. So as a composer, I follow the rhyme and meter of the poems. Obviously, I want to make melody varied and interesting but there is a certain restriction with the structure.”
Additionally, he noted that certain passages suggested the use of pre-existing material. For example, the aforementioned meeting with Roosevelt is framed with “The Star Spangled Banner.”
At another moment a missionary refers to Christian hymns, so Hing-yan referenced the Bible. In another section, he references Peking Opera and in yet another, he brings in “The Beatles” for an interlude, albeit with harmonic modulations.
“I use a saxophone and strings for The Beatles. And I harmonically distort it,” Hing-yan laughed.
One of the more difficult compositions for Hing-yan was the composition of a song that the oppressed Chinese sang to fight for their rights.
“They had a song, but eventually that melody didn’t survive,” he noted. “So I composed a song based on the texts.”
Despite all this play, Hing-yan was adamant that one thing was always at the forefront of his mind while creating “Datong.”
“Opera should reach the audience and be a component of entertainment,” he noted. “It shouldn’t be avant-garde and highly intellectual and have no melodies. I make sure that I write melodies that people can sing and remember.
“I hope audiences will enjoy the lyrical moments and the drama itself is larger than life. I think dramatically it is enjoyable and musically it is interesting. There is a nice juxtaposition of styles and genre.”
“It is beautiful music. It is great singing. I am so proud of the singers we have assembled. The director and the rest of the team are really great. They might not be recognized internationally, but they deserve to be,” Ho concluded. “At the end, I think audiences will love this work for everything we have put together. I think the universality will really strike them. It is so exciting to be able to bring some of our culture to others.”