Encounter with the Ancestors
Jeffrey Ching’s “The Orphan” in Erfurt
(By Lange, Joachim; source: Frankfurter Rundschau,
30 November 2009)
The characters of Jeffrey Ching’s opera “The Orphan” lead a dangerous life: In this story from ancient China, everyone is dead at the end. And the question arises whether that orphan, after whom the opera is named, is really alive when, upon succeeding to the throne, he is surrounded by spirits from the realm of the dead.
When the young man was a new-born baby under the protection of the story’s protagonist, he escaped with great difficulty from a politically motivated massacre, to which his complete extended family fell victim. The part of the rescuer, the physician Cheng Ying, who courageously intervenes, is played twice, as speaker of the German translations (Peter Umstadt) and as dancer (Julien Feuillet-Dolet).
It is the physician who after the interval reveals the twist to the story. We learn that he persuaded the villain Dag-Ngans-Kagh (Sebastian Pilgrim) to adopt the child, now a young man, as his own.
Rescue is followed by revenge, which—as was the custom in ancient China—is as brutal as possible, the perpetrator being dismembered in public. The blood-soaked tale of murder and revenge, of stolen and recovered identity, ends with this macabre anatomy lesson (which is celebrated at length, as in any ordinary TV crime thriller, only with this difference, that it is much longer, and the significance of every organ is explained through the music).
Jeffrey Ching’s own libretto in six languages, based on historical sources, is not only a literary opera of exotic origin. It is rather a conscious and intelligently thought-out attempt to establish, if not a dialogue of cultures, then their confrontation.
The composer—a trained Sinologist who now lives in Berlin, and was born of a Chinese family in Manila, grew up in England, studied there and in Harvard—daringly attempts to build bridges across continents and epochs.
The age-old Chinese horror story, which is based on an event that really took place in the 6th century B.C., and which was taken into the canon of Chinese literature in the 14th century, has a European history of reception, in which famous men such as Metastasio, Voltaire, and Goethe participated. In the interior dialogue of the music for his number opera, Ching refers to all this, by confronting time and again Asian sonorities with, for example, Purcell or Rameau, in a transformation of musical language.
For Ching’s complex music, the Erfurt orchestra, normally not even 60-strong, was expanded to 80 musicians: with partially exotic instruments (from Ondes Martenot to glass armonica, various kinds of gongs and tam-tams to electric guitar) and an impressive percussion installation played by six musicians and distributed on a scaffold over the stage. In the orchestral piece (No. 18), the whole orchestra unfolds its full acoustic splendor in a scene with the spirits: piling layers of overflowing, opulently whirring and escalating sonic invention out of the depths of time and space.
Moreover, during the encounter of the grown-up orphan (the role tailor-made for Ching’s wife Andión Fernández) with the spirits of his murdered ancestors and rescuers, Ching succeeds in composing one of the most beautiful quintets in the history of modern opera. Otherwise the music, in which the usual shifts of mood by means of large and sustained climaxes hardly occur, lives by its diversity and its frequent and abrupt changes.
Even if the [German] translation, which deliberately follows Chinese syntax and overlaps the singing, is awkward and somewhat discomfits the audience in the long run, it nevertheless belongs to the fragmentary character of the whole, brought out above all by the stylised Baroque aesthetics of Markus Meyer’s stage, and Sven Bindseil’s opulent mixture of Baroque European splendor and Far Eastern exoticism in the costumes. The murdered parents of the orphan, Arfisa (Marisca Mulder) and Osmingti (Denis Lakey), seem to be denizens of Versailles, while the helpful court official Alsingo (Marwan Shamiyeh) and the general Etan (Máté Sólyom-Nagy) were inspired rather by Peking opera or by the Nôh theatre.
[The director] Jakob Peters-Messer did not need any stage blood, in spite of the many dead. Characters who are murdered lose their faces, literally, but their costumes change into ash-grey and black when they reappear as ghosts.
Even if one can conceive this theme in a more contemporary context, Peters-Messer struck the right tone in the première, as did the conductor of the Erfurt orchestra, Samuel Bächli, and the ensemble, who proved passionate explorers of other epochs, languages, and cultures.
For the artistic director of Theater Erfurt, Guy Montavon, premières have been a part of his programme for ten years. Every season, one première takes place on the main stage with the fullest resources—in this, he seems to stand quite alone. Of course this is risky, but this time, his brave service to the art was rewarded.
Klaus Geitel, Berliner Morgenpost, in a letter to the composer:
"Caro Maestro, dear Mr Ching,
Finally I found the time to be overwhelmed by your work. For two days, your opera has occupied me, and not for the last time. I confess: In all my nearly 86 years I have never heard or seen a work or performance comparable to this one from Erfurt, and I will return to your opera soon, though without the hope of ever knowing it by heart, or mastering its essence. In truth the opera seems to me unique, not least of all, through the crossing and criss-crossing of time and place, of old European and timeless Asian music. Moreover your esteemed wife [Andión Fernández in the title role] is a singer who sweeps one away, vocally and dramatically. I congratulate her (and you) with all my heart. Nothing bolder than the gory anatomy lesson at the end of the work has been conceived for the musical stage by anyone. Bravo, too, for your fearlessness."
Sylvia Obst, 23 October 2010
Interview with Guy Montavon, general manager of Theater Erfurt
"The cycle of world premieres, which was introduced by you at Theater Erfurt, is always praised. In September 2005 you staged the world premiere of Philip Glass’ opera "Waiting for the Barbarians". This production was shown in 2006 at the Opera in Amsterdam and in 2007 in Austin, Texas. In 2008 it was performed very successfully in concert form at London's Barbican Hall. Which of the premieres do you like best?"
"It is difficult to judge the premieres one has staged oneself, because one is somehow restricted by one’s preoccupation with them. But I would say spontaneously: “The Orphan” was chosen by the audience, the opera won the Audience Award of the Society of Theater and Music Lovers of Erfurt for the 2009/10 season. I find the music of Jeffrey Ching more subtle, exploratory, and enriching than that of Philip Glass. The instrumentation alone was a great experience for listener and spectator, although from the point of view of the story the audience can identify better with "Waiting for the Barbarians" than with the mystique of Jeffrey Ching."
Surviving among the Dead
Première of Jeffrey Ching’s “The Orphan” at Erfurt Theatre
(By Lange, Joachim; source: Wiener Zeitung, 01 December 2009)
There are not many opera houses that can present every year a commissioned première as an integral part of the season. The director of the Erfurt theatre, Guy Montavon, has been staging premières for ten years, more or less successfully. Four years ago, he scored a hit with a Philip Glass opera, which could even be exported abroad. And Jeffrey Ching’s multicultural opera “The Orphan,” which had its première today, belongs to the encouraging examples which serve the artform.
The composer now lives in Berlin, is of Chinese parentage, was born in Manila in 1965, grew up in England and studied (among other things) Sinology in Harvard. In his opera he takes up an old Chinese story which really happened in the 6th century B.C. and which was included in the literary canon in the 14th century. Its history of reception in Europe began later. Metastasio, Voltaire and Goethe dealt with the theme of the “Orphan” who, by chance, escaped from a massacre of his family, was adopted by the murderer, and took a terrible revenge on learning of his real identity. In Ching’s sophisticated composition, all this is found in a seven-language libretto of his own creation. The opera confronts Asian sonorities with others evocative of Purcell or Rameau. It is not only in the confrontation of diverse things that Ching finds his own sound, which sometimes is even beguilingly opulent. Here the Erfurt orchestra, which normally is not even 60-strong, was extended to 80 musicians—partly by exotic instruments (from Ondes Martenot, glass harmonica, and various kinds of gongs and tam-tams to electric guitar), and by an imposing percussion installation distributed on a scaffold over the stage and played by six musicians. From the orchestra pit, Samuel Bächli admirably holds all this together.
Murder without Stageblood
Jakob Peters-Messer’s production uses the stylised devices of the Baroque theatre on Markus Meyer’s stage-set, and with the opulent mixture of European Baroque and Far Eastern exoticism in the costumes, creates a unified aesthetic framework for this story. It is the story of a miraculous rescue and a terrible revenge, in which in spite of the widespread deaths and murders, there is no stageblood. Characters lose their faces from the moment they die, and if they re-emerge as ghosts, their splendid costumes change to ash-grey and black.
The enactment of the death sentence of the play’s main villain, Dag-Ngans-Kagh, becomes the celebrated anatomy lesson, in which his organs are individually torn out of his body and musically fixed to their cosmological correspondences. In its strangeness, this takes some time to get used to, but provokes a glance at one’s own European history (and also at the television pathology usual today). There was unanimous applause in Erfurt.
West-eastern World of Sound
(By Kreyßig, Jan; source: Thüringische Landeszeitung, 30 November 2009)
Lit from below, at the centre of a funnel-shaped stage sheathed in black metal, is the quadrangle of death. Within this central spotlight, countless murders and suicides are committed, with only the Orphan of the title of Jeffrey Ching’s opera—an impressive work which premiered in Theater Erfurt last Sunday—left alive at the end. The libretto is exceedingly bloodthirsty and is based on a real event which took place in ancient China. The composer, of Philippine-Chinese origin and who lives in Berlin, makes use of this event to offer his captive audience a really transcultural experience.
“All—suffer—execution,” soberly says the secret main character of the opera, the physician Cheng Ying, who protects the Orphan from execution; as a reward, his part is played twice: as a speaker with a diction as clear as glass (Peter Umstadt), and as a mime and dancer (stirringly portrayed by Julien Feuillet-Dolet). Cheng Ying transfers the plot—which is situated in ancient China and which was taken up by, among others, Metastasio, Voltaire and Goethe—to our time, by simultaneously translating word by word and through gesture the ariosi, cavatinas, cabalettas, and ensembles of the protagonists singing in seven languages.
At a lectern in the proscenium, Cheng Ying relates these complex events with a microphone as they occur. Directly behind him, in the oppressive box of the stage, unfolds the cruel intrigue of the court official Dag-Ngans-Kagh in the duchy of Jin in the China of the 6th century B.C., who, in order to come to power, first has his rival Osmingti killed, and afterwards his relatives to the ninth generation.
It is only Cheng Ying’s courageous act, the self-sacrifice of General Étan, and the altruistic suicide of the courtier Alsingo (Europeans will never understand this altruism) that secure the Orphan’s survival. As the child of Osmingti and the duke’s sister Arfisa, he shall wreak revenge in the distant future—so to speak, as a time bomb—on Dag-Ngans-Kagh.
With glass armonica and electric guitar
In this opulent work of art, musical forms of the Baroque and the early Classical era, from which come the Rameau-based rhythms of the overture and the deceptively realistic imitations of Vivaldi and [C. P. E.] Bach, intersect with the gong-suffused sonorities of Chinese folklore. The chinoiserie of the 18th century serves the composer as motif for his subtle “Baroque meets Beijing”-blend.
The conductor Samuel Bächli brilliantly succeeds in the difficult task of synchronising the huge phalanx of percussion on the flyloft with the performers on the stage, and with the excellent players of the Philharmonic Orchestras of Erfurt and Gotha in the orchestra pit. In the second act, Jeffrey Ching’s opera reaches magical moments with the pulsating quarter- and eighth-tone duets of harp and Ondes Martenot, and glass armonica and electric guitar.
“What is strange, remains strange,” is the motto of the director Jakob Peters-Messer, who finds very concise and minimal gestures for the interactions in this multi-dimensional work. In the agreeably minimalist scenery by Markus Meyer, he either has the main characters, who wear lavish costumes by Sven Bindseil, perform like statues, such as the larger-than-life-size mass murderer Dag-Ngans-Kagh, convincingly played by the bass Sebastian Pilgrim, and the magnanimous general Étan, a baritone part sung with firm coloratura by Máté Sólyom-Nagy; or he assigns dynamics to suit the roles, for instance, to the somewhat tight-chested but versatile tenor Marwan Shamiyeh, who plays the part of the court official Alsingo, and the Orphan himself, played by Jeffrey Ching’s wife and muse, the flawless soprano Andión Fernández. The parents’ appearance certainly is of short duration—Marisca Mulder plays Arfisa with a brilliantly lyrical soprano, and Denis Lakey plays Osmingti with a sonorous countertenor.
The stage designer Markus Meyer and the directing team use symbolism discreetly but effectively: Leaning at the right edge of the stage, as a kind of memorial, is a head-high razor blade. At the end of the first act a panda, such as the People’s Republic of China gave foreign states as a token of peace until 1984, looks at the audience from afar.
Within this area of tension, the chorus of Theater Erfurt generally has a subordinate pantomimic role: it is only in the surreal finale that it is allowed to sing out loud in a gruesome execution from ancient China. The intestines are taken out of the living body of Dag-Ngans-Kagh, who is finally condemned to death—this is staged by Jakob Peters-Messer with a high degree of abstraction and plastination. For every organ—presented by the chorus members on a silver tray—Jeffrey Ching composed a unique acoustic color out of a seemingly inexhaustible palette.
The future lies in a global musical world
This “modern court opera” (Ching) is an experience absolutely to be recommended, and not only to voyeurs. The composer, who after five symphonies presents only his second opera, succeeds in achieving the apparently impossible: an inseparable and effective intertwining of European and Asian tonal idioms, with enigmatic and bewitchingly beautiful results. When water gong and ocarina meet bass trombone and alpine bells, when the artistic director of Theatre Erfurt, Guy Montavon, meets, purely by chance, Jeffrey Ching in a Berlin café, then the decisive course is set for a globalized—and richer—musical world. We have no cause for worry.