In 1999, Lincoln Center Festival staged a 16th-century Chinese opera called “The Peony Pavilion” at the LaGuardia Concert Hall in New York City, directed by Chen Shi-Zheng.
The show, an example of one of the earliest surviving forms of Chinese opera, was 20 hours long; it took three days to perform.
It marked the beginning of Chen’s international fame. The New York University alumnus from China and member of the Order of Arts and Letters of France this year rejoins Spoleto Festival USA for the fifth time, presenting “Matsukaze,” a new production and U.S. premiere based on the very old theater form from Japan called Noh.
Q: What is the most essential distinction of your works so far?
A: I mostly direct operas. Opera has its very own share of audience, compared with other art forms. However, I want to tell stories to non-opera-goers as well. People don’t need introductions in advance to see my operas. As long as they come to the show, they will understand it. Strong visual presentation is the key, which helps the audience follow the music and the story.
Q: Was cultural difference a concern when you decided to direct “Matsukaze”?
A: There is a certain ethnic mystery in composer Toshio Hosokawa’s music. But he has been living in Berlin for a long time and writes in German. The trace of Noh opera is light in “Matsukaze.” So it is something new, something modern and unexpected.
Today, most artists focus on finding their own personalities. The concept of an artist representing a culture, thus a kind of aesthetics, doesn’t work anymore. The essence of Hosokawa’s work lies in his personality, which includes its connection with Japanese music.
Q: What do you think of the multicultural working environment today?
A: It’s almost impossible to find a creative team with everyone from the same country now. I’m familiar and comfortable with working in a diverse crew. Everyone’s background is different, which is fun; and we’ve all been traveling a lot and are open to new ideas. The diversity somehow makes it easier for the crew to agree on a lot of things.
Q: How did you “modernize” the piece?
A: For example, we built two unconventional installations on stage. One is an upside-down pine tree made with transparent plastic tubes, which is a key part of the story; another is a mini house that serves both as an important light source and as a screen for videos and images to project on. Everything works with the lights.
Q: How do you choose projects?
A: Every time I read or hear a new piece, it’s like entering into a new world. I need to think it through first, see if I can capture the vibe. I won’t be able to work on something if I don’t have images in my head when I hear it. It’s not even about me liking it or not, but about whether I can find a way to connect with it.
Q: So what’s next after “Matsukaze”?
A: I’m going to work on a Kunqu opera named “Madam White Snake,” which will premiere this October in Suzhou, China, and tour in America next year. Spoleto is one possible stop, so now I’m also doing some opera house scouting here.
Q: You have a tight connection with the Spoleto Festival. What makes you come back again and again?
A: Nigel Redden, the general director of Spoleto, is a huge supporter of mine over the years. He produced several of my works before. We have been partners and friends for decades. He is one of the few Western producers who really learn and know Asian traditional operas. I always feel welcome and understood here for what I do.
And I love Charleston. The city is so relaxing and beautiful, with nice weather and sunshine. To be able to work here for a month is such a delight. Festivals combining arts and resorts are popular around the world, and Spoleto is definitely one of the best in America.
Vinny Y. Huang is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University. This interview was translated from the Chinese.