HUDSON, NY – Thursday, October 13, Halloween comes early to the historic Hudson Opera House with the American premiere of Chinese Opera”painted skina supernatural story of a couple tormented by a shape-shifting demon.
The new production of American-Chinese Institute of Music at Bard College Conservatory of Music is the centerpiece of its fifth annual China Now music festival.
Early 18th century author Pu Songling’s widely read ghost stories have fired the imagination across the centuries in his native China. Contemporary Chinese composer Hao Weiya set his favorite tale “Painted Skin” to music, with a libretto by Wang Yuanfei, creating a three-character chamber opera that premiered in Shanghai in 2018. In China, the words “Painted Skin have come to mean the two sides of duplicity, a benign outward appearance that conceals evil intent.
At its heart, “Painted Skin” is an ancient tale of marital misbehavior. A demon posing as a beautiful woman captivates an American university literature professor, much to his wife’s dismay. But more than their marriage is at stake.
The opera is sung entirely in Chinese, with titles in English, accompanied by a 24-piece orchestra composed mainly of traditional Chinese instruments played by students and guests of the Bard Conservatory.
Two of the professional singers are American; the third is Chinese. The Wandering Professor is sung by mezzo-soprano Kristin Gornstein, last heard in Bard in 2019 in the groundbreaking opera Acquanetta by Michael Gordon and Deborah Artman. The coloratura soprano Holly Flack, who has often performed in China, plays the betrayed woman.
Chinese opera virtuoso Kunqu Qian Yi sings the demon in disguise. In 1999, the Shanghai Opera star toured the world headlining Lincoln Center Festival’s epic 7 p.m. production of “The Peony Pavilion,” before moving to the United States.
The opera is conducted by Beijing-born Jindong Cai, director of Bard’s US-China Music Institute since its founding in 2017.
Raised during the Cultural Revolution when Western music – but not Western instruments – was banned, Cai studied the violin but played revolutionary music, he said in a recent phone call.
Later, in 1979, during his first year at the Beijing Conservatory, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra came to China under the direction of Herbert von Karajan, followed closely by Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
“I was mesmerized by the power of the drivers,” Cai said. Karajan barely moved with his eyes closed, he said, while Ozawa moved every part of his body.
Cai came to America in 1985 to study conducting at the New England Conservatory, and in 1989 studied with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood.
Entering academia in the mid-1990s, Cai taught at Stanford University for 14 years before coming to Bard. His longtime friend, Bob Martin, was director of the Bard Conservatory of Music; When Martin decided to establish the US-China Music Institute, he asked Cai to be its director.
The Institute promotes cultural exchange between the United States and China through contemporary Chinese music. Bard’s Conservatory created the first Chinese instrument degree program in the United States, with undergraduate and graduate students playing traditional instruments such as the erhu and pipa. Most are from China and want to experience a Western liberal arts education, Cai said; but a few are Asian Americans from Texas and New York, and a pipa player from Boston is African American.
The program will create a new generation of Chinese musicians, Cai said. When Chinese and Western musicians work and learn together, “I hope we create something new for the 21st century.”
Wu Man, famous pipa player of the Silk Road Project, supports the program and leads master classes. “She really had a big impact, putting this instrument and this kind of music on the map of world classical music,” Cai said.
“It’s not ‘Chinese’ music, it’s really contemporary music,” he explained. “If you go to China, people want to create new music. In symphonic orchestras or opera houses, 50% of the repertoire is new pieces.
The music of Western classical composers was performed during their lifetime, Cai added. “Most of the music played in concert halls these days is the music of the dead. We need the music of our time.
“Historically, Chinese opera has always been composed by Chinese, performed by Chinese, and the audience is predominantly Chinese. We are in the 21st century and the world has become closer, even between different cultures. If a singer trained in the West can sing in Italian, French or even Russian, he should be able to sing in Chinese.
Singers are very serious about pronouncing words well, he added. “It doesn’t matter what language they sing. This gives them a new opportunity to explore.
In “Painted Skin,” Chinese composer Hao Weiya includes traditional Chinese elements but also tries to be international, Cai said. Two characters sing in the western style and sound very lyrical; while the other character represents traditional Chinese opera. “So you can see these two different things together in one room,” he said.
“I think it will be very accessible to anyone who loves opera, who loves ghost stories, and who loves Western music and Chinese music. Everything is translated into English for people to understand,” Cai said.
It’s no coincidence that the opera was scheduled close to Halloween, he noted. “Our festival is always in October, so I thought this opera was perfect.”
This is the first opera produced by the Institute. Most festival performances are related to symphonic or chamber music, performed in New York and Bard. “I hope in the future we can do more,” he said.
Director and Hudson resident Michael Hoffman is an alumnus of the Bard Conservatory Vocal Arts Graduate Program and specializes in contemporary music and new works. He was hesitant when approached for this project.
“I’m a white director, with no experience of traditional Chinese opera,” he said over the phone. “I don’t speak the language or know the story behind it. It’s the first time I’ve tackled something composed in a culture that isn’t mine.
Choosing him was deliberate, he said. The opera had only been produced in Asia with an all-Chinese artistic team, so Cai was looking for a director who could approach it with an American sensibility.
The Institute’s mission is to foster cross-cultural dialogue between Western and Eastern classical musicians, Hoffman explained. “When it comes to opera writing, this piece uses both sides of the coin of classical, western and kunqu music.” Kunqu is a traditional form of Chinese opera, he explained.
A language coach helps the American singers with Chinese diction, and Hoffman has a full English translation in his score. “It’s about identifying where we are and what they’re saying,” he said. Learning instrument signals can be difficult due to unfamiliar Chinese instrument sounds.
Hoffman wants the characters to be as realistic and relatable as possible – even the demon. “There is always a humanity in this character,” he said. “Qian Yi really insisted on digging into psychology and understanding his motives.”
The process has been particularly rewarding for Yi, Hoffman said. “Chinese opera is so stylized, they work in this very specific choreographic language. We incorporate elements of that for specific dramatic effect, but we also really turn away from it.
Audiences will have the unique experience of seeing the two performance styles side by side, he added.
Much of the opera takes place in the professor’s house. Because production is moving to Lincoln Center immediately after Hudson, the physical setting is deliberately stripped down to just a few pieces of furniture. Lighting and projections evoke dramatic moods and demonic visions, with make-up and costumes adding effect. The demon’s appearance changes in the public eye, Hoffman said.
As with most spectral stories, the action eventually gets visceral. But it won’t be bloody, promises Hoffman. “It will be scary, there will be suspense, it’s deliberately abstract in moments that would be more violent. It deals with adult themes, but it’s by no means graphic.
This is the festival’s first appearance in Hudson. “Any form of art that has been around for hundreds or even thousands of years must have artistic and social value,” Cai said. “We have to cherish this value and present it to people.”
“The whole world is merging, and culture can still connect people together,” he added. “That’s why I think what we’re doing is important. It’s really a test stone, bringing different music to our local community – usually these gigs only happen in big cities. If we are successful, I think we can do more.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO
What: Chamber opera “Painted Skin”. Directed by Jindong Cai. Directed by Michael Hoffman.
With: Kristin Gornstein, Holly Flack, Qian Yi.
Who: US-China Music Institute at Bard College Conservatory of Music
Where: Hudson Hall, 327 Warren St., Hudson, NY
When: 7 p.m., Thursday, October 13
Admission: $25 to $45, general admission; $10, students with ID.
Tickets: 518-822-1438, hudsonhall.org