Interview: Zhang Er, Greg Youtz on opera Fiery Jade – Cai Yan, and understanding China through music and poetry
By Wen Liu Dec. 6, 2016
For four nights in mid-November, at the Karen Hille Phillips Performing Arts Center, the Chinese flute solo, with its long, sorrowful and stirring trills, took the audience to a China that existed 2000 years ago, in the Eastern Han Dynasty. The three act opera that followed told the story of Cai Yan (also known as Cai Wenji) and her life through war times, including loss of husband to illness, capture by Xiongnu invaders, marriage and motherhood in enemy territory, and final release and return to her homeland. Through it all, she played her Guqin music and wrote poems, making her a legend in China’s history and a symbol of women enduring hardships through arts.
What was also “out” of anyone’s perception or expectation, just as with the Chinese flute in an American opera, was the fact that the performers and the musicians of Fiery Jade – Cai Yan were all students and faculty of the Department of Music at Pacific Lutheran University. One could not help but be moved by their acting, singing, instruments, stage design, costume, and most of all, their dedication to this pretty “foreign” production. What may not have been on their mind was that they just added a new kind of tie, an artistic one, to the many ties that exist between Washington state and China.
Still, the opera would not have been possible without its composer, Prof. Greg Youtz of Music at PLU, and its librettist, Prof. Zhang Er of Biomedical Sciences + Chinese Poetry at the Evergreen State College, and their wonderful collaboration. But why? Here Prof. Zhang and Prof. Youtz share with us the whys behind this opera and more.
WCWD: Why did you decide to work on this particular story of Cai Yan, to collaborate with each other, to make an opera of it, at this time and place?
Zhang Er: Cai Yan was one of the most famous woman poets of China who lived during the violent end of Eastern Han dynasty around 200 AD. Her life story as recorded by her autobiographic long poem and in Han court record was full of drama, ready made for the opera stage. Her struggle is still relevant today.
Music and poetry always enhance one another. Opera is a perfect combination of the two. Cai Yan in the opera was both a poet and a musician, her word and her singing go hand-hand with each other. That makes our collaboration essential to the success of the opera. Her story as a daughter, wife, mother as well as a poet/musician living through wars, cultural and ideological conflicts, abduction, domestic violence, marriages and loss of loved one made her approachable to contemporary audience.
Greg Youtz: Zhang Er showed me the libretto and I was very interested since I knew the story of this famous woman of Chinese history. What I didn't know was that she was an empowered woman for her age. That made her really special- not a victim of history and politics (as I had understood her to be) but rather an agent seeking and to some degree succeeding in shaping her own history and that of her country. As Zhang Er mentions, this makes her of great interest to our contemporary culture, and to our concerns about gender equity, ethnic strife and the power of the individual to effect change.
We knew each other and our respective work before beginning on this project, but making an opera really causes the poet and musician to have to bond as one creative unit. The composer has to get deeply into the poet's creative space and intention- from the overall arc of the plot to the level of individual words and their sounds; the poet has to respond to the composer's music and make sure that it is adding to and not subtracting from the story, the characters and the poetry. I think we are both thrilled that we have found such a close and successful working relationship. Zhang Er has a very natural sense of theater and so I found within her libretto all of the dramatic and imagistic scaffolding I needed to construct the final musical opera.
We have been working on this off and on for about 4 years but, now that it is finished, the timing seems perfect- given the news these days about refugees fleeing war, women and children as the victims of male violence, identity politics dominating conversations, and U.S. fears of other cultures. The piece itself personifies all of this in the character of Cai Yan and those around her and thus allows us to see in this ancient story themes we can recognize and relate to personally today.
WCWD: Was it just a pursuit of art of music and poetry, through this extraordinary woman's story, or also an effort in improving American understanding of China?
Zhang Er: It has to be a pursuit of art of music and poetry first and foremost and personal fulfillment. If we do it well and create something convincing and moving, hopefully it will offer possible alternative prospects to our contemporary dilemma of cultural encounters in an increasingly crowded globe. We may realize, the conflict between the Han Chinese with Xiongnu in 200 AD is not so different from that between Western world and Islamic world. What Cai Yan experienced speaks to the current war refugee crisis. Women have suffered throughout the history of civilizations, Chinese, Muslim, American, African, generations after generations, in the hands of men, in the hands of other women.
Greg Youtz: It must be art first, since art has its own requirements of form, language and concept. If it isn't great art first, then no one would be interested in hearing any "messages" it may contain. (One definition of propaganda would be "all message, no art!") One of my major interests in writing this was to pursue yet further my 25 year interest in combining aspects of Western and Chinese musical and theatrical ideas into new and expressive music. I was able to pull together techniques and ideas I had developed over perhaps a dozen previous pieces into this one grand summation.
Having said all that though, I have devoted more than 25 years of my professional career to the study of China and the introduction of Chinese and Americans to each other and their respective cultures. It was a joy to help the singers and actors in the production understand the ancient Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist traditions that governed the words, actions and lives of their characters. While we did not try overly hard to recreate literally the palaces and encampments of the Han Dynasty scenes, we did try to make sure that characters' words matched their traditional behavior. In this sense, we hope that the production was deeply Chinese and would cause our audience to want to know more about Chinese history, poetry and music.
WCWD: So what’s next, taking the opera to a wider audience or even to China someday?
Zhang Er: Yes! Love to.
Greg Youtz: Yes! We will be marketing this production to professional companies around the world, hoping that others will see in this opera something new, relevant and artistic. We hope that some in China will see this as an example of Chinese and Americans working together on art that can inspire all to work towards a more peaceful and harmonious society.