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A new kind of Chinese opera

Times Staff Writer

Mao Tse-tung casts a shadow over American music.

Tan Dun, Bright Sheng, Chen Yi and other Chinese composers whose musical educations were interrupted by forced hard labor during the Cultural Revolution have subsequently made notable careers in America. Chairman Mao and his wife, Jiang Ching, feature prominently in John Adams’ opera “Nixon in China.” This summer Santa Fe Opera premieres Sheng’s “Madame Mao.”

And Friday night in the Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall, the UC Santa Barbara Opera Theatre presented the first staging of William Kraft’s “Red Azalea,” a new opera based upon Anchee Min’s bestselling memoir of growing up in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution.

Kraft has his own connection to this milieu. The composer -- former principal timpanist, assistant conductor and composer-in-residence of the Los Angeles Philharmonic -- is married to a Chinese-born composer, Joan Huang, who also spent her youth under Maoist artistic repression and hardship. She is credited as musical and technical advisor to “Red Azalea.”

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Min’s accounts of her experiences working in the fields at Red Fire Farm and then as an actress at the state film studios shock with their directness. Her sentences are short and blunt; her verbs, active. It is as if reflection and adjectives were among the many luxuries denied workers in the collective effort. Her life conforms, as best she can make it, to Mao’s sayings and the rousing banality of propagandistic operas, but not without conquering doubts or guilt.

Horrible things happen. She is forced to denounce a favored teacher and to expose a friend caught with a man. The man is beaten and later shot; the friend, Little Green, is driven insane and commits suicide. On the farm and in the film world, lives are ruined by fickle political tastes and personal animosities. She is witness to and victim of the extreme fickleness of powerful leaders, from Mao on down.

Min’s memoir reads like a jagged seismograph of shocks, each a new scar on a young girl’s psyche. Kraft’s music smooths the graph out. His opera is a flow of shock waves, a continual line of curves rather than sharp angles. This happens in part because the libretto by Christopher Hawes, in being true to the sequence of incidents in the book, streamlines. But it is also the character of Kraft’s music and its overall elegiac cast.

In one significant departure from Min’s memoir, Kraft casts his opera as a flashback. He has the author, who immigrated to Los Angeles after Mao’s death, return to China for a visit, and these are her memories. That introduction, and Min’s language filtered through Kraft’s moody music, makes the China of the 1970s seem far away and long ago, another age and world.

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The staging by Michael Sokol adds to the dreamlike unreality of those harsh times. He has his student cast move in stylized walks and gestures, almost as if they were in one of the Chinese opera films of the period. There is some direct communication between characters, such as when Min falls in love with her commander on the farm, Yan. And these moments are especially touching because they are so unusual.

In his orchestra, limited to eight players, percussion is a dominant element and provides a wealth of color. There is a part for the erhu, a two-string Chinese fiddle, that was wonderfully played by Karen Han. Kraft calls his style American impressionism, and it is full of richly evocative instrumental effects, which blend interestingly with his sinuous vocal lines. But this small ensemble, buried in the pit, felt undernourished much of the time. And given how vivid some of the solo writing could be, I found myself wishing the instruments were onstage, characters themselves.

Kraft’s score will require a professional performance for full appreciation. Jeffrey Schindler conducted the student cast methodically, his attention directed at keeping the ensemble together through 28 fluid scenes.

The character of Anchee Min is almost always onstage, and soprano Eve McPherson made her stalwart and likable, but unchanging over more than two hours. Soprano Camilla Twisselman, a delightful soubrette, enlivened her dual roles of Little Green and the film star Cheering Spear, who is Min’s rival for the role of Red Azalea. Justin Plank brought a confident baritone and strong presence to his two roles, one a party secretary and the other a sleazy film studio supervisor with dark glasses and a casting couch.

Joanna Taber (the denounced teacher, Autumn Leaves), Nichole Cechaine (Yan), Zac Bush (Leopard Lee), Adrienne Larsen (Lu) and Sarah Beth Riess (Soviet Wong) sang capably.

“Red Azalea” ends morosely. On Min’s return to China, she asks the stigmatized Autumn Leaves for forgiveness. It is not granted. Like the successful Chinese composers in America, the author made a new life, but Mao’s specter lingers.


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