Paradise Interrupted
An installation opera in one act

MGM Cotai Theatre, Macau

August 29th & 31st, 2019

Paradise Interrupted is an arresting installation opera that poetically weaves the myths of the Garden of Eden and Peony Pavilion with composition that merges 600-year-old Kun opera with contemporary Western opera. The narrative follows a woman searching for an unattainable ideal in a world activated by her singing voice as she attempts to return to the Garden. Interactive technology enables a vast garden and a host of digital characters to interact with the protagonist and respond to her voice. Visual artist Jennifer Wen Ma directs and designs this exquisite opera. Huang Ruo writes a composition that is at once a continuation of tradition and entirely new. The quest-seeking soprano is Qian Yi, who has been lauded by The New York Times as "China's reigning opera princess."

This re-staging at MGM Cotai features updated extremely high-resolution video content and new voice-responsive elements thanks to the immersive 4k LED video environment presented via the MGM Cotai theater. 

All major set design components, such as the Tree and Garden, fold out from an empty stage and return to the void at the end. These elements, along with the virtual characters through video projection, are inspired by the ephemeral quality of traditional Chinese opera stage design.

 

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

Collaborators

Jennifer Wen Ma, director and visual designer


Jennifer Wen Ma is a visual artist, whose interdisciplinary practice bridges varied media such as installation, drawing, video, public art, design, performance, and theatre; often bringing together unlikely elements in a single piece, creating sensitive, poetic and poignant works. 

She was one of the seven members on the core creative team for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the chief designer for visual and special effects. She received an Emmy for the U.S. broadcast of the ceremony. She works and lives between New York and Beijing. Recent exhibitions include: Vancouver Art Gallery, 2014; Cambio Cultural, Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 2013; Performa 13, New York, 2013; The Republic of China Centennial Grand Countdown, Taipei, 2010, Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain, 2009, Solomon R. Guggenheim,Museum, New York, 2008, The National Art Museum of China, Beijing, 2008, among others. 

Huang Ruo, composer


Chinese-American composer Huang Ruo has been cited by The New Yorker as "one of the world's leading young composers." His inventive musical voice draws equal inspiration from Chinese ancient and folk music, Western avant-garde, rock, and jazz to create a compositional technique he calls "Dimensionalism." Huang Ruo's writings span orchestra, chamber music, opera, theater, modern dance, sound installation, folk rock, and film. Ensembles that have performed his music include the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, National Polish Radio Orchestra, Washington National Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Asko/Schoenberg Ensemble, Remix Ensemble, and Quatuor Diotima. Huang Ruo's opera Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, was given its American premiere by the Santa Fe Opera in 2014, and will have its Canadian premiere by the Vancouver Opera in 2018. He was recently named the composer-in-residence for the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Huang Ruo is currently a composition faculty member at the Mannes College of Music, and he is the Artistic Director and conductor of Ensemble FIRE (Future In REverse). 

Qian Yi, lead role, Kunqu performer


From the age of ten, Qian Yi studied classical Chinese opera (Kunqu) at the Shanghai Opera School. As a member of the Shanghai Opera Company, she became known for her leading roles in The Legend of the White Snake, The Water Margin and other standards of the classical Chinese opera repertoire. The Chinese Ministry of Culture recognized her as one of the country's finest young Kunqu actors. 

In 1998, Qian Yi was cast in the lead role of Lincoln Center Festival's epic 19-hour production of The Peony Pavilion. The production toured internationally, playing at major international festivals in the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia. Her performance has been widely acclaimed by critics and audiences alike, garnering such superlatives as "radiant" (New York Times), "incomparable" (Wall Street Journal) and "spellbinding" (New York Magazine). 

 

Qian Yi continues to perform Chinese opera. Most recently, she starred in the Contemporary Legend Theatre's The Butterfly Dream, which premiered at Taiwan's National Theater as part of its 20th anniversary celebration. She also starred in The Eternal Palace, which was performed in venues across the United States including the Smithsonian Freer+Sackler Galleries. In addition to these performances, she has brought her knowledge of Chinese traditional theater to American audiences in an academic context. She taught Chinese Opera movement at Barnard College, Columbia University and has given numerous lectures and demonstrations at universities and museums around the country. 

 

John Holiday, countertenor 

Joshua Dennis, tenor

Ao Li, bass barritone 

Joo Won Kang, baritone 

Ji Chao, librettist 

H.M. Agnes Hsu-Tang, English libretto interpretation and translation 

Wen-Pin Chien, conductor 

Lea Xiao, lighting designer 

Guillermo Acevedo, interactive video designer 

 

Gwen Welliver, choreographer

Austin Switser, projection designer 

Melissa Kirgan, costume designer 

Xing-Zhen Chung Hilyard, costume designer 

 

Matthew J. Hilyard, stage designer 


3D printed elements for Qian Yi's headdress are digitally modeled by Xilun Wu, and engineered and printed by Guillermo Acevedo

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, Director and Visual Designer

Composer’s Note

The word and genre “opera” is much broader and more inclusive in the 21st century than it was in the past. Installation opera Paradise Interrupted integrates opera, theater, dance, music, poetry, made-up words, installation, multi-media, Eastern and Western operatic spirits, voices, and instruments, 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 opera singer and Western opera singer is not an easy task. Instead of simply pasting the two traditions together, I sought to create all the vocal and orchestral music anew and organically, 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 language is a character-based language with different tones. The spirit of Chinese language 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 co-exists 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 reflect 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 ink 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.

© 2019 Jennifer Wen Ma

Jennifer Wen Ma

Littlemeat Productions

New York, NY

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