Paradise Interrupted
An installation opera in one act
Direction and visual design by Jennifer Wen Ma
Music by Huang Ruo
Libretto by Ji Chao, Jennifer Wen Ma, Huang Ruo, and Qian Yi
Featuring Qian Yi in the lead role

The story of a woman on a quest for an unattainable ideal in a world activated by her lone voice.

• Previewed at the Temple of Dendur, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, March 21, 2015
• World premiered at Spoleto Festival USA 2015 season, Charleston, May 22-31, 2015
• Lincoln Center Festival 2016, New York, July 13-16, 2016
• Singapore International Festival of Arts, Singapore, August 31-September 3, 2016
• National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts, Kaohsiung, Fall 2017

Paradise Interrupted is an arresting new work that reimagines and fuses the biblical story of Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the stirring dream of Du Liniang from Tang Xian Zu's The Peony Pavilion. Set within an exquisite environment by visual artist and director Jennifer Wen Ma and with music by acclaimed composer Huang Ruo (Dr. Sun Yat-sen), this installation opera gracefully merges the 600-year-old kun opera tradition with contemporary Western operatic idioms. The protagonist is portrayed by Qian Yi, "China's reigning opera princess" (New York Times), whose performance of Du Liniang at Lincoln Center Festival's famous 20-hour production of The Peony Pavilion in 1999 introduced New Yorkers to the 600-year-old kun opera tradition.

The narrative follows a woman in search of an unattainable ideal in a world activated by her lone voice. After waking from a passionate dream, our heroine embarks upon a search through a lush ebony garden made from dynamic paper sculptures and interactive multimedia projection. The haunting, sensual score weaves the melismatic vocal style of Chinese kunqu with Western tonality.

Paradise Interrupted is co-commissioned and co-produced by Spoleto Festival USA, Lincoln Center Festival, and National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts.

-Excerpts presented at The Temple of Dendur, The Metropolitan Musuem of Art, March 21, 2015
-World Premiere at Spoleto Festival USA 2015 season, May 22-31, 2015
-Lincoln Center Festival 2016 season dates to be announced
-National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts dates to be announced for the inauguration of the center


Woman is in a rapturous dream, experiencing pleasure that builds with fierce intensity. She descends from the height of euphoria and finds herself alone, without the embrace of a lover or the warmth of the dream. Woman considers the beauty of the previous environment and the coldness of her current situation: she has been on a lengthy search for an unattainable ideal, and no longer knows where to look. The Wind Elements call to Woman; she decides to follow.

Woman sees a gate. The call of the Wind seems to come from beyond this portal; she enters with careful anticipation. A black line stretches upwards from the ground into a young Tree. Woman stands under it and observes the emergence of a black garden—a new world unfolds in front of her eyes, and everything in sight invites her in. Though she is delighted and tempted by its beauty, she yearns for someone to share the experience with.

Fireflies dart out from the Garden. They multiply and congregate into plant forms, teasing Woman as they fly. She playfully responds, but the lights dissipate out of her grasp. The Elements call as fireflies coalesce and crystallize into a man. Woman perceives this man as the embodiment of her youth and sings a duet with him. Sorrow enters the song as the man steps away from their union to depart. Though longing for love afflicts the Woman, she gains a new resolve about the passage of time and youth. She accepts the coming challenges, and with this understanding, the Tree grows.

The Elements call again. The garden grows denser to surround her. Fireflies coalesce into a wolf. Despite a sense of danger, Woman dances with the wolf, channels her animalistic drive, and casts away her inhibitions. With a newfound courage, Woman is prepared for the next adventure, and the Tree grows fuller still.

The Elements reveal a glistening white flower within the Garden. Woman enters the flower and feels as though she found the paradise she has been seeking. Woman consummates her desires, reaching a profound height of fulfillment. Believing she has finally realized her dream, Woman lays down to rest and falls asleep. The Elements lull her with their song.

In this moment of respite, Woman is cautioned out of her ecstasy. She wakes up and tries to leave the flower, but finds herself physically bound to it. In her struggles, Woman realizes desire has imprisoned her, and she chooses to release herself of its confines and break the illusion of the garden. The Tree matures to bear fruit. As Woman breaks free from the flower and escapes the garden, the fruits burst and rain black ash. Woman's willful awakening brings on the chaotic deconstruction of the garden. The Elements chant powerfully as the garden returns to nothing.

With new clarity, Woman sees that her journey has led her to the Garden's essence distilled into a black ink pool, enabling her to freely paint any world she imagines.

Director's Note:

Paradise Interrupted is a new departure in my artistic practice, melding many long-term explorations into one work. A core approach to my art-making involves extending traditions into a contemporary discourse, and this opera fuses and re-imagines the biblical story of Eve's search for utopia after being expelled from the Garden of Eden with the Chinese kunqu drama of Du Liniang's journey after being awakened from a profoundly stirring dream in the Peony Pavilion. The Woman in Paradise Interrupted is in search of an unattainable ideal in a world activated by her voice.

A multi-media installation appears and disappears on stage in a moment's notice, at the command of the Woman's singing. The black garden is made from hundreds of laser-cut paper sheets that are assembled in a formation that creates tension between each individual sheet when pulled apart, enabling the garden to stand erect when open and return to a neat stack when collapsed. The form and volume of the garden on stage can be lengthened or shortened at will by the demand of the drama. In this dark forest, digital characters are generated live by video projection, responding to the Woman's singing voice in tempo, pitch, volume and nuanced emotional delivery. They become fully activated as digital actors, all the while remaining elusive. The ephemeral quality of the stage design provides a dreamlike setting for the drama, highlighting the psychological state of the Woman.

This approach to set design is inspired by the highly symbolic and spare kunqu stage, and Chinese literati landscape painting. In these largely monochromatic paintings, black ink dominates the visual language to create variations in the landscape, represents all colors, and emulates all forms. Black is the absence of light and simultaneously a combination of all color pigments. The duality of inclusiveness and expulsion gives great opportunity for artistic exploration.

The exquisite artistry of the kunqu movements deeply enriches this opera. The traditionally bare and open kunqu stage demands performers to be extremely expressive and codified in their song, dance and gesture to create the drama. Qian Yi's mastery of the rigorous classical movements and openness to experimentation allow her to bring in contemporary expressions to embody the Woman physically as much as vocally.

Qian Yi's mesmerizing sonic and visual fusion brings to life Huang Ruo's beautiful composition, which also takes inspiration from kunqu while remaining firmly rooted in the contemporary. She is framed by four powerful and rich western operatic male voices that symbolize elements of nature. They give form to her longings, test her sense of self, and gain strength with each phase of the Woman's growth. The Woman's delicate voice transcends fragility and compels us to consider our own desires, illusions, and breakthroughs along with our quest-seeking heroine on this emotional and artistic journey.

Jennifer Wen Ma, April 2015

Composer's Note:

The word and genre "opera" is much broader and more inclusive in the 21st century than it was in the past. The installation opera Paradise Interrupted integrates opera, theater, dance, music, poetry, made-up words, interactive multimedia, and cross-cultural operatic spirits, all into one entity. Chinese kunqu opera has 600 years of tradition in which the singer not only sings and acts, but also dances according to dramatic and emotional needs. Most of the gestures are symbolic and abstract yet full of meaning. To create a new opera that brings together both kunqu and Western opera singers is not an easy task. Instead of simply pasting the two traditions together, I sought to create all the vocal and orchestral music anew, while highlighting each of the very different traditions, aesthetics, styles, and characters.

When setting words with music, the language of the libretto is taken into careful consideration. Chinese is a character-based language with different tones. The spirit of Chinese is not only within the words themselves, but also between the words. In order to inform drama and reveal the internal world of our opera characters, I created various musical bridges, steps, paths, and hills for the words to travel. This technique creates a colorful sonic garden that coexists with the paradise in our opera and serves as a different layer to the opera.

The music for the Woman, inspired by the traditional kunqu opera spirit and aesthetics, shows various stages of her quest and transformation: at times dreamy, at times playful, at times alluring, at times feisty. The music for the Elements, floating in a connected yet different sonic world, also reflects various dramatic roles and characters, from the calling of the wind, gathering of the fireflies, howling of the wolves, and the trap of temptation, to the chanted destruction of the paradise, which transforms itself into a pool of ink.

At the end, after the Woman frees herself from the confinement of her desire, she sings a simple yet powerful aria while the orchestra echoes the sound of dripping ink from the pool. Only now is she able to freely paint any world she can imagine. It is this spirit of freedom that allows the music to draw from its many contributing traditions and inspirations without being confined.

Huang Ruo, April 2015