Acclaimed filmmaker Atom Egoyan (Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter) is directing The Spoleto Festivalís production of ďFeng Yi Ting,Ē a Chinese opera composed by Guo Wenjing, that made its American premiere Sunday.
Based on historical events, the opera follows the beautiful maiden Diao Chan (soprano Shen Tiemei) as she manipulates two rival suitors.
The Post and Courier spoke with Egoyan about encountering Eastern cultures and the process of directing ďFeng Yi Ting.Ē What follows are highlights from the full interview, which appears online in audio and transcript form.
Q: Is this the first time youíve worked with a project thatís so inherently grounded in Chinese culture?
A: Yes. Iíve really never immersed myself in a piece of Chinese mythology. The learning curve is extraordinary. I actually think itís one of the best theatrical experiences Iíve ever had because itís an unusual piece. Iíve never been remotely close to the world of Chinese opera. I donít think many people here have.
Q: I know that in traditional Chinese opera, the female roles were traditionally played by male actors. Is that the case with Feng Yi Ting as well?
A: As a matter of fact, what people might find surprising is that the male voice is actually falsetto. Thatís its closest Western equivalent. When I first heard it I thought there were two women singing. Now, whatís interesting is that Iíve heard the vocal range before in Armenian folk music, where you also have these very high almost nasal sounds. Thereís something artificial about it, but very haunting as well, especially when combined with the gestures and the dance of it all. Have you seen Chinese opera in Beijing?
Q: I went to one ... itís such a distinct type of performance. There really is no Western equivalent that I can think of.
A: No, and one of the things that I found disturbing when I was watching archival videos is that itís very simply presented. I mean, the costumes are elaborate, the gestures are elaborate, but from a staging perspective itís very broadly lit.
Q: A lot of your work frequently explores that paradox of female sexuality and how women can be both victims of sexual oppression while also exercising their own sexual power. How did that theme influence how you chose to direct ďFeng Yi TingĒ?
A: I think youíve just sort of said what the whole opera is about.
Q: It seems appropriate that you would use a lot of projection and multimedia in your approach to ďFeng Yi TingĒ just because thatís a common theme of your work, that idea that technology influences how we approach history.
A: In this case thereís a clash. Iím using a kind of ancient projection system in terms of shadow play, in contrast to our very advanced computer generated approaches to the subtitling and other aspects. So itís all to do with this notion of the two traditions confronting each other and creating a new space.
Q: Youíve said that film directing is a much lonelier discipline than directing plays for theater. Where does opera fall into the mix in terms of the loneliness of your responsibilities?
A: I think itís even more collective than traditional theater because youíre also working with musicians of course, and a conductor, and weíre all part of this huge soup. The alchemy between all of these different components is something that weíre immediately aware of as weíre exploring. Thereís no different take to select, thereís no way of cutting it internally so that youíre avoiding things. Itís all present on stage and thatís what makes it so exciting. Thatís what makes the live performance of theater and opera something that will never really diminish in our culture, even though cinema arguably is in decline and weíre now watching things on iPads Ö weíre not as engaged, weíre not as concentrated on the projected image as we used to be by any means and thatís disheartening. But on the other hand, I walk into a theater, I go, ďWow, Iím connected to a tradition that goes back to ancient Greece.Ē
Q: Because, as you mentioned, people are becoming so disconnected from film due to all these technological shifts, do you find yourself drawn more to theater and operatic projects? It seems like for the past few years thatís what youíve mainly focused on.
A: I love film. Itís really whatís given me these opportunities. I have no illusions about that. If I wasnít well-known as a film director I wouldnít have had these opportunities come my way. And yet I began in theater. I was doing plays in school and when I was in my late teens, early twenties, I thought that was my career, that I would be writing plays and directing plays. So to come back to it now has been really satisfying. Itís incredibly nourishing having contact with these other artists and musicians. And all sorts of group gradations and all sorts of recalibrations are at work in every live performance, every rehearsal. Thatís unique to the theatrical form.