Tony and Dr. Sun

by wjw on August 28, 2014

So I’ve been making the trek up to Santa Fe to view the offerings at the Santa Fe Opera.  Which wasn’t all opera, by any means, though Doctor Sun Yat-sen is.  This is a new opera, sung in classical Mandarin, modern Mandarin, and Cantonese, by Chinese-born composer Huang Ruo, with libretto by Candace Mui-ngam Chong, co-creator of the Broadway hit Chinglish.  The Santa Fe production was the American premiere— actually world premiere, since the only performance in China didn’t feature Western instruments.

Sun Yatsen is a founding father of modern China, and is revered by Nationalists and Communists alike.  The opera took the political background more or less for granted— “overthrow Ch’ing, get rid of that annoying General Yuan, establish republic”— though the emphasis was on Sun’s personal life, and specifically his love of Soong Chingling, one of the three famous Soong Sisters.

In the first bit, rich publisher Charlie Soong is raising money for a church, intending that most of the money should go to fund Dr. Sun and his revolution.  But the revolution fails, and Sun flees to Japan, where he encounters Charlie’s daughter Chingling and decides to marry her.  Charlie objects, pointing out that Sun’s married already, an arranged marriage to an old-fashioned village woman with bound feet (who bore his first three children).  So there’s a plot involving whether First Wife will agree to give Sun a divorce— she has a plaintive song, but eventually obeys, and Sun and Chingling are married.  And then there’s more revolution, and a giant seated statue of Sun rises onto the stage while Sun sings a political address, presumably one he actually delivered.  Triumphant finale, though the statue looked a lot more like Winston Churchill than Dr. Sun.

(In actual history Dr. Sun had four wives, not two, and he never divorced his first wife.  At one point he had three wives simultaneously, though he did divorce one of them to marry Chingling.)

As for the music, friend Gene Bostwick described it well as “Stravinsky meets Hollywood Epic,” with a lot of Stravinskyan dissonance married to Big Hollywood grandeur.  It all worked well, and I left the theater happy with the way the revolution had turned out.

Not all the singers were Asian, so learning to sing in three different Chinese dialects was doubtless a challenge for much of the cast.  (Cantonese was used in the love scenes between Sun and Chingling, because it was their native language, and one version or another of Mandarin for the rest.)  In an interview with Corinne Winters, the soprano who played Chingling, she pointed out that she already sang in ten languages, so learning another one was par for the course.

The opera was commissioned by tenor Warren Mok, but the performances scheduled for China were almost all canceled, and Mok was called back to the motherland ahead of the Santa Fe premiere, leaving Joseph Dennis two weeks to learn the part and sing it.  A heroic endeavor which he did extremely well, I’m happy to report.

(It’s unclear what the problem in China was, as the libretto passed the censors.   Possibly the party line changed at the last second, and it was no longer correct to complain about corrupt government.)

My most recent visit to the Santa Fe opera was less politically fraught.  I went to see Tony Bennett.

I’m not a huge fan of the crooners, being of a rock and roll generation, but I grew up with the music, and I thought I’d give the maestro a try.  He’s 88, after all, and I might not get another chance.

So he came out and he was— well— Tony Bennett.  In a white jacket, with that big Tony Bennett head on top.  And he was beyond awesome.

He started singing and I realized I’d been hearing that voice my entire life.  And the voice hasn’t diminished at all, it’s still right on the money.  He can still hit the high long notes, and sometimes he did it just to show off.  (His very few slips I put down to the altitude.)  He sang “Fly Me to the Moon” without amplification, just to show he could.

He was backed by a jazz quartet, and they were extremely good.  He gave them lots of solos, which doubtless had the additional effect of giving him a chance to catch his breath.  But it also became clear that he’s a damn good jazz singer, that he doesn’t do the same concert every night and that he always tries to bring something new.

And damn, the man can sell a song!  He doesn’t just sing the lyrics, he sings what they mean.

I’m understanding why Lady Gaga is doing a second album with him.

In a few weeks I’ll be attending Globalquerque, our yearly festival of world music.  It’s been quite the summer of song.

Previous post:

Next post:

Contact Us | Terms of User | Trademarks | Privacy Statement

Copyright © 2010 WJW. All Rights Reserved.