Nobel laureate Mo Yan pens his first Western-style opera: ‘Sandalwood Death’

By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2018/12/6 17:53:42

A scene from Sandalwood Death Photo: Courtesy of NCPA

Combining Western opera with Chinese folk music, the opera adaptation of Chinese Nobel laureate Mo Yan's classic novel Sandalwood Death was staged at Beijing's National Centre for the Performing Arts on Tuesday.

Co-written by Mo Yan and Shandong University of Arts professor Li Yuntao, who also composed the music, the opera version of Sandalwood Death is based on the true story of a civilian uprising against German colonization in East China's Shangdong Province during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). 

The opera takes place mainly after the aftermath of the uprising and the death of a local bard named Sun Bing. One of the uprising's leaders, he is sentenced to the "Sandalwood Death," a painful form of capital punishment in which sandalwood sticks are inserted through a person's body in such a way that they die slowly over a period of several days. The story explores how different people in his village - his daughter Meiniang, relatives by marriage, a local official (who is also Meiniang's lover) and a group of beggars - react to his death.

While the movie and TV adaptations help make Red Sorghum one of the author's more well-known works, Mo Yan thinks that opera is "an art form that cannot to be replaced by movies, TV dramas or stage dramas."

"It is a very splendid art form, combining various artistic elements including music, storytelling and performance," Mo Yan told the Global Times on Tuesday.

"I think that is why opera has such a long history and high status in the West."

He also added that an ongoing opera production is more open to being continually revised, which gives it a much better advantage over a film or TV series.

"A great opera is born from a decade of amendments and upgrades," he noted. 

Mo Yan, now in his mid-60s, has written 11 novels, five short story collections and several plays and essays. According to Li, they chose Sandalwood Death for Mo Yan's first opera adaptation because sound - such as the sound of a train and the sound of maoqiang (a folk opera native to Gaomi, Shandong Province) - are integral to the story itself. While the adaptation is, strictly speaking, a Western opera, it does include the music of maoqiang, which Shandong natives Li and Mo Yan grew up listening to.

Li also mentioned that while the horror of the "Sandalwood Death" is a huge focus in the book, since it is difficult to present on stage, they chose to focus more on exploring the inner thoughts of the main characters.

Since Sandalwood Death is a performance that tells a Chinese story through the combination of Western opera and Chinese folk art, both Li and Mo Yan have been discussing the possibility of taking it overseas.

"We have been talking about it [with foreign institutions and organizations]," Li told the Global Times. "We are looking forward to presenting such a Chinese story on the world stage."

Li noted that they invited officials from foreign embassies, as well as musicians from the Czech Republic, to come see the opera during its opening performance on Tuesday and the follow up performance on Wednesday so that they could get some feedback from a foreign audience. 

"It was very interesting because it was a mixture of Western-style opera but with a story from Chinese history," Dalibor Jenne from the Embassy of Czech Republic told the Global Times after Tuesday night's show. He added that he feels the opera will be a bit easier for Western audiences to understand than pure traditional Chinese opera.  

Newspaper headline: Winning combo

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