Arts & Culture

‘Fiery Jade’ turns ancient Chinese heroine into a new Tacoma opera

Behind the scenes at new Tacoma opera 'Fiery Jade'

War. Rape. Refugees. Conflicting cultures and religions. If this sounds like 2016 to you, you’re right – but it’s also what was happening in 177 C. E., when a Chinese heroine was born who’s the star of Tacoma’s first brand-new opera in decades.
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War. Rape. Refugees. Conflicting cultures and religions. If this sounds like 2016 to you, you’re right – but it’s also what was happening in 177 C. E., when a Chinese heroine was born who’s the star of Tacoma’s first brand-new opera in decades.

War. Rape. Refugees. Conflicting cultures and religions. If this sounds like 2016 to you, you’re right. It’s also what was happening in 177 A.D., when a Chinese heroine was born who’s the star of Tacoma’s first new opera in decades. “Fiery Jade: Cai Yan” opens at Pacific Lutheran University Nov. 17, the collaborative child of Tacoma composer Greg Youtz, Olympia poet Zhang Er and a host of artists, musicians and builders.

But more than the sheer novelty of a newly written opera that fuses Western and Chinese music is the story: a strong woman who overcomes violence and patriarchy to make her world a better place.

This is history. But it’s a very personal story we can relate to.

Greg Youtz, composer

“So this needs to be staccato, really like — ‘Oh my gosh, she’s here, what’s she like?’” says Youtz. He’s at the foot of the stage at PLU’s Phillips Hall, where the chorus of “Fiery Jade” has just begun working the opera’s second-to-last scene. Cai Yan, the heroine, is about to make a dramatic entrance after years of being help captive by Mongolian nomads. “You’ve all heard of this woman, she’s had three husbands, she’s famous — and now she’s actually here, without a male escort,” Youtz tells the students. “You’ve got to look horrified, but really dying to see her.”

Cai Yan’s story is truly the stuff of opera. Born at the end of the war-ridden Han dynasty, Cai Yan (pronounced ts-eye yehn, and historically also called Cai Wenji) had the kind of turbulent life that might have crushed many others. Married at 16 and widowed at 18, she was then kidnapped by Mongolian invaders in a raid that devastated the Han court where her father had been a scholar and musician. She married and had two sons with Mongolian Prince Zuo before being “reclaimed” by the Han as part of a peace treaty. She married a third time, in the new kingdom of Wei. When her husband was sentenced to death for smuggling goods to her old family, she pleaded successfully for his life and that of all political prisoners — partly thanks to her supreme talents as a poet and musician. In the opera she also reconciles with her mother, who has taken on the newfangled Buddhist faith, and helps reconstruct a library of her father’s poetry destroyed by war.

For librettist Zhang Er, it’s not just a dramatic (and historically true) tale. It’s a way to turn opera on its head.

The traditional angle of looking at women on the opera stage is as a sex object...(But) Cai Yan is not a victim — she’s trying to change her life.

Zhang Er, librettist

“The traditional angle of looking at women on the opera stage is as a sex object,” says the Chinese-American poet. She teaches literature and ethics at The Evergreen State College under her real name, Li Mingxia, but uses Zhang Er as a pen name for her published poems and happens to have a doctorate in molecular pharmacology. “(They) die, they go mad, they’re passive, at the receiving end of aggression. … And in war and violence, women are always victims. (But) Cai Yan is not a victim — she’s trying to change her life.”

Five years ago, Zhang, who had already written an opera libretto, not yet performed, sat down and wrote one about Cai Yan. It reads more like an epic poem than a traditional libretto, with long stanzas and several quotations from traditional Chinese poems, including Confucius’ words about how poetry and music “become the moment of union between gods and humans.”

Youtz, meanwhile, spent many years studying classical Chinese music, leading PLU study trips to China and incorporating Chinese elements and instruments into his compositions. When Zhang met him at a class at Evergreen, she asked if he’d write the opera’s music.

“I realized it was actually a really dramatic libretto,” Youtz says. After developing a tonal system and writing a couple of scenes, he realized the music “was writing itself.”

James Brown, head of PLU’s opera department, got keen on giving the opera a premiere, and Youtz spent most of 2015 composing. With funding from the Confucius Institute of Washington to pay for a professional chamber orchestra, the opera could come to life. Zhang, who visited Youtz’s home, saw paintings by his wife, artist Becky Frehse, and suggested they be used as projected backdrops. Vaguely abstract landscapes in a mottled Chinese red, they sing of bloodshed and passion.

Other elements came into play: a professional flute player from China who’ll play bamboo and clay flutes between scenes; a Portland make-up artist who gave the students a workshop in Chinese opera makeup, softened a little for a Western production.

Then there’s the music the characters play. Cai Yan’s qin (pronounced ‘chin’), a long seven-stringed instrument whose music Youtz imitated with a sliding pizzicato cello and a virtuosic harp part; and the hujia (‘hu-chia’), the Prince’s Mongolian flute, rendered by a soprano sax.

Youtz melded other Chinese elements into his score via a pentatonic-based 12-tone tonality that uses a lot of bare fourths and fifths, Chinese opera cymbals and a host of other percussion, and a very traditional melodic style for Cai Yan’s qin playing.

“I’m trying to convey my deep respect for Chinese music,” Youtz says. “I think a Chinese audience will go, ‘Wow, he really knows something.’ ”

But because the storyline is all about cultures meeting, clashing and reconciling, Youtz also wrote sections inspired by Mongolian overtone singing and its wild grassy plains, plus some inspired by Indian ragas for when Cai Yan’s mother turns to Buddhism.

The music is really vivid and really captures the drama so well, which is the most important thing in opera.

James Brown, director

But does it work as Western opera?

“I love it,” says Brown, who’s directing. “The music is really vivid and really captures the drama so well, which is the most important thing in opera.”

But with the nontraditional tonality, Brown acknowledges that it’s incredibly difficult to learn, especially for students.

“Luckily Greg’s open to tailoring changes for the most challenging parts,” he says.

Brown likes the musical intersection of cultures, and how Youtz’s writing “pays tribute to the rich Beijing opera tradition” without the rather screechy vocalization that it’s known for.

“I hope the audience would (include) people from both cultures,” Brown says.

Most of all, though, this opera is important because it highlights world problems we’re experiencing in our own time — with a peaceful solution.

“We’re still fighting patriarchy around the world,” Youtz says. “We’re watching Syrian refugees flee war to stay alive. We’re seeing migrants flee to us for a better life. That’s what this story’s about. This remarkable woman is tossed about by war and patriarchy, but impresses everyone with who she is. And in the end she out-virtues the king. This is history. But it’s a very personal story we can relate to.”

“I see a parallel between Western civilization and Islamic culture,” adds Zhang. “There is violence, but peace can ensue (if you don’t) demonize the enemy.”

“Fiery Jade” is also just a really good show, Youtz says.

“It’s intriguing — it won’t sound like anything else you’ve heard,” he says. “And, let’s face it, how long has it been since someone wrote an opera in Tacoma?”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Fiery Jade: Cai Yan

By: Greg Youtz and Zhang Er.

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 17-19, 3 p.m. Nov. 20.

Where: Karen Hille Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, Pacific Lutheran University, 12180 Park Ave. S., Tacoma.

Tickets: $5-$15.

Information: 253-535-7602, plu.edu/music.

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