Monday, February 9, 2015

SCO's 'Savage Land' - Interview with Li Jing-Jing

The Singapore Chinese Orchestra's semi-staged presentation of Jin Xiang's opera Savage Land looks set to be a musical and theatrical extravaganza that packs an emotional wallop. I called up 29 year-old leading lady Li Jing-Jing, one of China's fastest rising stars who has won many prizes in Germany and count Mirella Freni and Francisco Araiza as mentors, in Beijing to talk about her upcoming Singapore and role debuts. Here is what we discussed:

The Mad Scene: Tell us about the role you will be singing, what is her personality like and what happens to her in the opera?

Li Jing-Jing: Jing Zi is a farmer's daughter. She is made to marry the son of a family whose father is a governor. This is an arranged marriage – the man that she intended to marry is framed and thrown into jail by the governor. She was forced to marry the son of the governor and does so unwillingly.

However, her lover escapes from jail after 8 years. When her lover reappears, she is refilled with hope again. I feel that she is a very determined, very daring and hot-headed person. Nonetheless she is still a woman who just wants to be loved by her man, who still yearns to be accepted for who she is.

She has a very strong character, strong inner fire, full of life. Very unconventional for her age, wanting to enjoy life to the fullest. Unwilling to submit to authority and wishing to regain her freedom. In Cao Yu's original script, the author described her looks and comportment in such a way that we can see that she is born a very charismatic woman, very original and very forthcoming. She is born of a higher social status in her village, not a poor villager, and so carries herself as such.

Even in her repressed state, she is made to become very wild, very stubborn, but we can still see a sympathetic side to her character as this is her basic character. She is not a venomous person unlike her mother-in-law. She is only made to behave that way as defiance to her circumstances. She doesn't really have bad intentions in her. She really wants to pursue the life that she dreams of. She is not a religious person who is waiting for freedom in death or her next life to be free: she needs to make the best opportunities of her life, to pursue her own love and her own life. Somehow she is thought of as the Carmen of the east, someone who values her freedom above life itself. Even though she's married into a wealthy family and is thus supposed to be happy, she's makes it clear that she's very unhappy as she is unable to marry the person that she loves. Her husband is very weak and gullible, unable to satisfy her as a partner.

The Mad Scene: Is this your first time singing the role of Jing Zi?

Li Jing-Jing: Yes. I love this role as it is a major challenge for me. Her character is polar opposites from mine, very strong, very straightforward, very proud person. Her attitude toward her husband and to men in general is completely different from mine. While I can relate to her reliance and love to her original lover on some level, her struggles, strength and stubbornness she displays is something that I have had to think very hard about because I feel so different from her.

The Mad Scene: Is Jing Zi close to your own personality? Would you have reacted differently if you were under the same circumstances?

Li Jing-Jing: I think that unlike her, my life has been very blessed. My personal and professional life is very blessed so I don't harbour as much resentment. But I have thought that if I were a woman born into this environment and time period, what would I do? I guess if I was put into such a situation, I would have chosen to compromise. When she was brought into the family, she had already lost all hope as her lover is in jail and the rest of her family have all been killed, so there's no reason for her to display the strength she displays to carry on.

But if I were in her shoes, I may hate my perpetrators less and try to consider things from their perspective. Jiao Da-Qing (the arranged husband) really loves her, its not an insincere love, and his heart did not want to accept her love as he knows that she is his best friend's fiance (a relationship that is not presented in the opera). While she does not love him romantically, she may feel some sympathy toward him. She may hate her circumstances, but not necessarily hate him. So if I were in her shoes I may try to accept him.

But therein lies her strength, her determination to regain her freedom even if it means losing her life. Where does she get this determination from? I believe that its from the abusive mother-in-law. Even today the relationship between wife and mother-in-law is a big problem that is very difficult to resolve. The mother-in-law is a high society person of a certain age. She only has one son and knows that Jing Zi was originally engaged to someone else. Her son is the reason for her to live on, but she knows that he is very weak. She also knows that Jing Zi is a very smart girl, so she's afraid to lose her son. She's afraid that Jing Zi will consume his son's spirit and he will not listen to her anymore, so she is someone who becomes very venomous due to her fears. The amount of abuse she displays increases with the fears she harbours. This venom gives Jing Zi endless troubles. Jing Zi is also a proud woman so clashes between these two are inevitable.

Baritone Zhang Feng, who plays her original lover Chou Hu

The Mad Scene: Musically speaking, what are the challenges of singing this role? Any differences between singing with a Western orchestra VS a Chinese one?

Li Jing-Jing: For me, the more challenging parts of the music are the recitatives. Its not that extreme where contemporary music goes, but nonetheless its full of dissonances and unusual effects, playing simultaneously with melodies infused with Chinese operatic elements. The orchestra plays special themes that represent each different characters, from the mother-in-law and the fiance, and themes that represent wilderness, love or darkness. The love theme between the two original lovers has such a lovely melody yet a feeling of uneasiness, just like how love in real life is supposed to be; bittersweet. You hear this melody evolve from their childhood together, to when they are reunited many years later. Even though it forms just a part of the opera, it but becomes one of the most anticipated themes as the rest of the opera is very suspenseful and filled with dread.

The Chinese operatic influences are necessarily added by composer Jing Xiang, because this is an opera that represents the Chinese people. He would have some moments that is inspired by Chinese opera, such as moments when the orchestra would play at a very fast and strict tempo while the singer sings in a slow and free manner. Its free-form music-making yet kept within certain boundaries, very speech-like in a way. This form of music would be used when Jing Zi's is confiding in someone, when she is speaking emotionally.

Such passages present a great challenge. In other parts like her arias and duets, they are already very well-known in China on the concert repertoire, everyone knows them well and they are commonly regarded as classics. But the challenges of presenting the character as a whole in a complete operatic performance lies in these very unique scenes that take in contemporary and Chinese operatic styles. It breaks away from yet is respectful of tradition, all coming together to present the emotional truth of our fragile human nature.

The Mad Scene: I imagine the orchestration requires quite a big number of players.

Li Jing-Jing: Yes its a big challenge, the orchestral accompaniment is often dissonant with the vocal line, approaching atonality to present a type of dread, choking suspense, while the vocal part presents a beautiful tonal melody representing appearances. Imagine a tonal melody and atonal accompaniment playing together! Its a test on the singer's skills to not be carried away by the atonal orchestration. It also tells us that even in bad times some moments are good, that happiness and sorrow do coexist together.

Its not about performing with Chinese or Western orchestra, each performance with an ensemble is always different. Its about understanding your colleagues, and working together to find a common ground, a common vision to present to the audience. This will be my first time working in Singapore and with the SCO, I'm really looking forward to a successful performance and a fruitful collaboration!

Savage Land plays for only one night on 28 February 2015 (my birthday!) Get tickets at the Events Page!

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