What to do when modern audiences shun traditional opera? Guo Wenjing’s solution is to incorporate a whole chunk of it into a new composition. His chamber opera The Inner Landscape, which premiered this week at the Holland Festival, is constructed around traditional Sichuan opera. Preceding the opera, a documentary by Frank Scheffer followed the collaboration of the mild-mannered Mr Guo with the affable Dutch conductor Ed Spanjaard and the charismatic opera singer Shen Tiemei. The prominent Sichuanese artists explained the differences between Chinese and Western opera, for example, the placement of the voice towards the crown rather than around the mouth and nose, which produces a narrowly focused sound.

Shen Tiemei © Janiek Dam
Shen Tiemei
© Janiek Dam

Most fascinating, however, was seeing the musicians interact during rehearsals. “Korea?”, Ms Shen asks Mr Spanjaard when he plays Chopin for her, and then starts waltzing gracefully to the unknown composer. The look on Mr Spanjaard’s face when he learns that he is supposed to follow the opera singers and percussionists, not the other way round, was priceless. Mr Scheffer intersperses the plot of how the opera was generated with grainy, monochrome images of mist-enshrouded mountains, trembling leaves and dark, narrow alleys. These scenes point at the source of Mr Guo’s inspiration, namely, his native province and the soul of its people. Projected on a circular screen as part of the set, they later tied the opera to the documentary.

After the documentary, the screen rolled up to reveal Mr Spanjaard and the Nieuw Ensemble on one side of the stage, and three accompanying singers and percussionists on the other. Centre stage was reserved for Ms Shen, who, with the aid of a few props, became Sekong, a girl sent to a monastery when her childhood is beset by illness. Now a young woman, the reluctant nun rails against the boredom of celibate life and longs to escape and join a man she has seen passing by. A Sichuan opera classic, Si Fan is an apologia for personal freedom that vividly reveals the young woman’s emotional turmoil. Mr Guo has wrapped Si Fan in his composition, with an atmospheric prologue and a jubilant final dance, short intermezzi and additional accompaniment. In the documentary he states that his aim is not to present a mere dialogue between East and West, but to create something new. The intended fusion, boldly played by the Nieuw Ensemble, was most successful in the purely instrumental excerpts, perfumed with diverse colours and periodically taking off with striking rhythms. Mixing traditional Chinese sounds with Western tonal and dissonant phrases, Mr Guo mostly suggested rather than conveyed emotion. Soft arpeggios and tense pizzicatos echoed the contrasting moods in the libretto. There were also moments of condensed feeling, such as a string lament during which Ms Shen mimed Sekong’s melancholy. However, the new music detracted from her monologue when underscoring it with sustained chords and peppering it with percussion. No doubt it all made musicological sense, but the layering of old and new sounded more like a forced superimposition than a smooth blending. Characteristic vocal accompaniment and percussion, called, respectively, Bang and Da, turned out to be the best complement to Ms Shen’s art.

Shen Tiemei © Janiek Dam
Shen Tiemei
© Janiek Dam

And Ms Shen is a great artist. The role of Sekong puts heavy vocal and theatrical demands on its interpreter. Pure of pitch and fluid of limb, Ms Shen entered and exited the gamut of emotional states in a complete embodiment of the character. All the while, she traversed the wide vocal range without a hint of exertion. Any breakdown of her performance into separate aspects would be ludicrous: her singing, acting and movement were as one. Never for a moment did one doubt that she was 19 years old, bubbling with longing and flaring with frustration. Impossibly exquisite in diaphanous white with jewel-toned accents, she swung and flung her hossu, a fly-shooer made of animal hair supposed to also keep away earthly desire. As her nun hankered in long, piercing melismas, there was no doubt that the hossu would only prevail over insects. She was endearing when struggling with Buddhist texts, like a fractious schoolgirl at her homework, and blazed with anger when describing her parents, who had locked her away. When Sekong finally broke free, Ms Shen threw off the top layer of her costume and danced with skittish euphoria. It was a starry performance in the best sense of the phrase, and a confirmation of the expressive power of opera, in the right hands, in any idiom.

***11