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For many, Chinese opera remains something of a mystery. Some have never had the chance to view these works that, while being very beautiful and entertaining, are also incredibly different from the Western style of opera. “Dr. Sun Yat-sen,” a piece by Huang Ruo and Candace Mui-ngam Chong, does a nice job of mixing Chinese and American opera styles in order to reach a broad audience. Granted, it is still a very different experience than one would expect from, say, a Mozart opera, but it is definitely worth viewing.
Conductor Carolyn Kuan is delightful. She and her orchestra produce an outstanding array of sounds, ranging from relentless percussion in sections that moves the action and helps the audience to feel the anxiety and fear of the characters, to graceful sustained passages that underline the romantic nature of the characters’ action on stage. Kuan has done an outstanding job with this difficult piece, as has the orchestra.
The vocal expression is done a bit differently in this opera than in many Western operas. It doesn’t feel strictly Chinese, but it definitely doesn’t fall squarely onto the Western side of things; however, the balance is very pleasing. The use of Chinese is a perfect choice, as it fits the music well, and it is a perfect opportunity for audiences to get a chance to hear what different languages contribute to operas. In the first half, many voices seemed to lack resonance and the sound felt a little hollow. More tonal brightness came in after the intermission, and it made all of the difference in the world. Most of the singers’ voices came to life and increased drastically in overall resonance and range of color.
The chorus, throughout, seemed to be very far away, and while the floating sound was absolutely gorgeous, it would be interesting to hear a little more fullness from them.
Warren Mok was to sing the role of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, but second-year apprentice Joseph Dennis has taken over this role. He is to be congratulated for a fine performance. His voice is warm and brilliant, and it fits very well with Corinne Winters’ voice. She does an excellent job portraying Yat-sen’s love interest, Soong Ching-ling, with radiant sound and fluidity.
In addition, second-year apprentice Rebecca Witty sings the role of Lu Mu-zhen effectively, with a rich, luxurious sound belying her young age. MaryAnn McCormick and Gong Dong-Jian, as Ni Gui-zhen and Charlie Soong are a good pair, balancing well with Dennis and Winters’ voices.
Dr. Sun Yat-sen is a work of art that enables American audiences to experience a taste of Chinese opera, while having enough Western style to appeal to a broader range of listeners.
The tonality may be a little difficult for some, but it is refreshing to hear something different from the norm, especially when the music is this well done.
This piece was assembled with care and it is a great choice for those looking to expand their musical horizons by trying something different.