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Podcast Episode 3: Atom Egoyan on Feng Yi Ting

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[show opening] Hello dear listeners, and welcome to the Spoleto Spotlight podcast, brought to you by the Post and Courier. I’m Andrew Johnson, and this is a special bonus episode of the show. If you’ve been reading The Post and Courier, you may have seen the Q&A with Atom Egoyan that was published today. He is the director of Feng Yi Ting, which is a Chinese opera premiering at Spoleto this year. The version in the newspaper, however, just contained a few highlights of my interview with him, not the full interview itself, so that’s what this bonus episode of the podcast is for. The full interview was a little over 20 minutes long and I’m going to play it for you in a second. But first, let me give you a little bit of background information on Atom Egoyan and Feng Yi Ting. Atom Egoyan is primarily known as a filmmaker. He’s directed over a dozen films, including Exotica, Where The Truth Lies, and most recently Chloe. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director for his 1997 film The Sweet Hereafter. And Feng Yi Ting is not his first venture into the world of opera, as you’ll hear him talk about in just a minute. He’s directed performances of Salome, the Rings Cycle, and many more operas. Feng Yi Ting was composed by Guo Wenjing and is based on the ancient Chinese historical tale of a beautiful maiden named Diao Chan who uses her beauty to inspire a rivalry between a warlord and his godson. I apologize if the audio quality of this interview is at times a bit sub-par, it was not conducted with Egoyan in person, it was done over the phone. And I should warn you that about two-thirds of the way through the fire alarm in his hotel went off, which led to a brief but humorous interruption. But don’t worry, that’s been edited down. So, without further ado, here’s Atom Egoyan on Feng Yi Ting.

[musical interlude] Well, I guess just to get started: People wouldn’t normally think to associate you with Chinese opera.

[laughs] Strange. So to start out, what drew you to this project and how did you get involved?

Well, I have been directing operas since the mid-90s. I actually wrote an opera also in the mid-90s called Elsewhereless, which presented thirty performances throughout Canada. My introduction is really through Salome, which I was proposed to do for the Canadian Opera Company after the artistic director, the late Richard Bradshaw, saw Exotica, a film I made in 1994, and thought that the person who made Exotica would be fascinated by the themes of Salome -- the ideas of voyeurism and suppressed desire and perverse sexuality and all sorts of other great things that were thrown into the mix. I listened to it and it was completely transformative. I had read Oscar Wilde’s play but never imagined the effect it would have when it was set to music, and especially Richard Strauss’ revolutionary music. The score for Salome really changed the whole course of 20th century music. That was just an amazing experience and I’ve been doing it since then.

I’ve been since that time involved with a couple world premieres including Gavin Bryars’ Dr. Ox’s Experiment in London for English National Opera. I was involved with the first Canadian production of the Ring Cycle, directing Die Valkyrie, remounting Salome for the Houston Grand, and all sorts of other theatrical experiences. And actually it’s one of those theatrical experiences that led me to this. I had been invited by the Gate Theatre in Dublin to present a short play by Samuel Beckett of my choice, and I actually went to one of the plays that he wrote for television and did a theatrical adaptation… [It was] experimental, but we had Michael Gambon playing the lead and it was very well received. It moved to the West End in London for a run, and then I was invited to the Lincoln Center in New York for the Festival. Michael couldn’t come. He was replaced by Liam Neeson. It was a huge success, it was a couple of years ago, and Nigel Redden, who was the director of the Lincoln Center Festival and also programmed for Spoleto, invited me to have a look at Feng Yi Ting. So that’s a very long answer for a simple question but that’s how I ended up being presented with this. And I listened to it and I just thought -- actually in my introduction I make certain parallels between the themes of Salome and Feng Yi Ting. They’re not entirely dissimilar in terms of this idea of a femme fatale, of someone who’s in some ways carrying out a plan and questioning the role of male authority.

I do want to touch on that a little bit more in a second. When I think about your work directing both operas and film, I don’t associate you with China. Is this the first time you’ve worked with a project that’s so inherently grounded in Chinese culture?

Yes. I think I’ve certainly spent time in Hong Kong, in Taiwan, but never on mainland China. I’ve really never immersed myself in a piece of Chinese mythology, and certainly as I’m working with these singers, I’m just so excited. The learning curve is extraordinary. I mean, I’m working with people who come from a very specific tradition who never really worked in a Western tradition of dramatic presentation, and I’m working with these people who -- I have ideas but I’m learning so much from what they’re offering and it’s been so exciting. I actually think it’s one of the best theatrical experiences I’ve ever had because it’s an unusual piece and what the composer has done is that he’s presented the vocal lines in a very classical way. The singers are actually singing what they would actually sing in Beijing or Szechuan opera houses that they come from, but it’s the orchestral line that’s very different and modern. And also our interpretation, how we’re actually visualizing it. And they’re very game, they’re just so excited to be doing and responding what I’m proposing, and I’m certainly thrilled by what they’re proposing, their gestures, their sense of play. It’s just very unique and unusual.

So yes, it is a huge learning curve. I think that I’m very aware of Chinese cinema. I know all the great traditions and the different schools actually now, we have different schools of Chinese art and filmmakers. I’ve seen all their films at various festivals and have really enjoyed their work over the past couple decades, but I’ve never been remotely close to the world of Chinese opera. I don’t think many people here have. From what I understand this might be the first presentation of a new Chinese opera in North America.

I get that impression as well. I’ve been to Beijing a few times and I know a little bit about Chinese opera, but I don’t think it’s very commonly read about here in the United States. 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?

No, as a matter of fact, what people might find surprising is that the male voice is actually falsetto. That’s its closest Western equivalent, I suppose. It’s in a very high register, so it sounds almost like a female voice. When I first heard it I thought there were two women singing. So it’s fascinating.

Now, what’s interesting, I have to say, is that the vocal range is, I’ve heard it before in Armenian folk music, where you also have these kind of very high almost nasal sounds and if you subscribe to the idea that Armenia is Asiatic, which they self-identify, maybe there’s some bizarre link. There’s something artificial about it, but very haunting as well. Especially when combined with the gestures and when it’s combined with the play and the dance of it all. Have you seen Chinese opera in Beijing?

I went to one, you know, they basically still just did it for the tourists. And of course I’ve seen a lot of Chinese films like Farewell My Concubine and some of those films that deal with Chinese opera. It’s such a distinct type of performance. There really is no Western equivalent that I can think of.

No, and one of the things that I found disturbing when I was watching archival videos is that it’s very simply presented. I mean, the costumes are elaborate, the gestures are elaborate, but in terms from a staging perspective there’s very little dramatic lighting or what we would identify as dramatic lighting. It’s very broadly lit. Not much set. And I do think there’s weirdly enough probably more familiarity with the idea of Chinese propaganda opera that happened after the revolution, right? We’ve all seen images of that, the flags being strewn across stage, and the workers, and that in some ways is more in our consciousness I think in the West than this form which is obviously much older. So it has been a real learning curve.

To prepare in terms for how you were going to direct your actors, did you study old opera singers like Mei Lanfang and some of those classical—

I looked for everything I could. More than anything, I was looking at their work, their specific work. Shen Tiemei is a huge star in China, so I was trying to get a sense of what her persona was about. From the very first rehearsal I said look, I want to watch you, because they had performed this role in concert and they know these characters. Certainly there was a very strong concept that this work is based on. I mean, both the clash between old and new and her presence being-- a modern presence as being a traditional one, different types of projection systems from traditional theatrical ideas to the new sort of technology. All of this was prepared, but before I actually started directing them I wanted to watch them, so we had them just perform.

I just felt it would be very presumptuous to tell them to move this way or that way when they have a whole tradition that I’m not aware of, really. And I wanted them to explain what the gestures meant to get a sense of the vocabulary, which is really specific. There are certain moments where I might have an interpretation from a Western perspective of how Diao Chan is reacting to something, but the psychology of it is wrong, it’s just not how that character is reacting. I had to listen to the music and I had to watch their gestures to reorient myself to what that scene means. It would be very arrogant to impose a completely Western concept of what the psychology of the work is referring to. So that has been very important to establish these very complex ideas.

Very often when I’m directing opera I’m working with singers who have done a role before and I have to kind of break that down and get them to do it the way I have in mind because I don’t want them to stage their Salome or their Sigmund in the way they normally do it. I have to use my first contact with them to re-block it in their mind, and I feel I have the ability to do that because I’m very familiar with the tradition they’re coming from. This wasn’t the case with Feng Yi Ting. I needed to see what they saw in these characters and to understand what that meant and very carefully suggest other ideas and see how they responded.

You’ve 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 responsibility?

I think it’s even more collective than traditional theater because you’re also working with musicians, of course, and a conductor. We’re all part of this huge soup. The alchemy between all of these different components is something that we’re immediately aware of as we’re exploring. Once you bring those musicians in and you’re working with all of your cylinders firing, then it’s completely open, there it is. There’s nothing to hide behind. There’s no other point like a film where you’ll fix something in the editing or you’ll add music to it or you’ll take away a scene or you’ll structure it this way. It’s there. There’s no different take to select, there’s no way of cutting it internally so that you’re avoiding things. It’s all present on stage and that’s what makes it so exciting. That’s what makes the live performance of theater and opera something that will never ever really diminish in our culture, even though film viewing and the way we watch films and the fact that cinema arguably in decline and we’re now watching things on iPads…

We’re not as engaged, we’re not as concentrated on the projected image as we used to be by any means and that’s disheartening. But on the other hand, I walk into a theater, I go wow, I’m connected to a tradition that goes back to ancient Greece. People are coming to this space and they expect to see something which is going to speak about their experience and that they can understand and relate to and when you then combine that with something as unusual as this music, as this story, the fact that it’s being presented in Spoleto, that’s amazing. That’s exactly what a festival should do. It should try and plug us into different theatrical experiences and generate completely unique and rare moments of contact between cultures.

Because, as you mentioned, people are becoming so disconnected from film and from the cinema due to all these technological shifts, do you find yourself drawn more to theater and operatic projects now? It seems like for the past few years that’s what you’ve mainly been focusing on.

I’m very happy doing them. I must say. I love film. It’s really what’s given me these opportunities, I have no illusions about that. If I wasn’t well-known as a film director I wouldn’t 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. It’s funny, I was just talking about this with my wife, when I came back from these first rehearsals of Feng Yi Ting I just went wow, I can’t imagine anything more satisfying than doing this. It’s very nourishing having contact with these other artists and musicians. You do get elements of that in film, obviously, and I love working with my composer Mychael Danna and I love those recorded sessions in that space. But at that point the drama is pretty much fixed. You’re not going to change a film performance because of the way the music is recorded, but this is constantly in flux. And all sorts of group gradations and all sorts of recalibrations are at work in every live performance, every rehearsal. That’s unique to the theatrical form.

You mentioned earlier that the story of Diao Chan does explore some similar themes to those of your films in terms of history, sexuality, betrayal. Is that something that you consciously recognized before you went into the project?

No, I’m always fascinated by the notion of role play and the performative aspect of desire and attraction, and that’s certainly at the core of this piece. And I feel that the reading that this production is giving is very accurate to the core of what the story is, and certainly in conversation with the singers they’re excited about this take on it. I hope it’s not something that I’m imposing artificially. I think the piece needs a strong concept. It has challenges, I mean most of it’s very expository, she’s telling us the story. Dramatic tension is not what we would normally expect in a Western opera, so we needed to find a way of underlying that. Of course that means it becomes very identified with a certain set of obsessions I have, but I think in this case they are in keeping with what the composer intended and what the unknown writer did.

I mean, this is coming from a very ancient text, but you look at these ancient stories and they have extraordinary meanings for us now. There are these questions that people have always asked about certain aspects of human behavior and dramatists have always explored -- notions of fidelity, notions of honor, notions of how to deal with desire, the disengagement of the rational self in the face of desire. That’s all fascinating, and certainly I think has ripples with this as well.

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 Feng Yi Ting?

Well, I think you’ve just sort of said what the whole opera is about.

That’s in many ways the essence of the story.

Yeah, it really is the essence of the story. I mean, this is a plot that’s been told to her by her godfather but she takes a particular relish in executing it. It’s fascinating because we don’t really see that male figure. I’m trying to visually represent this triangle of men between the godfather and Lu Bu and Zhuo Dong, but it’s really about her. She is the central and perhaps the only complex character in the piece.

I read an interview that you did with the BBC a few years ago in which you said that in many of your films there’s arguably this sense of coldness but that music can really help to reveal this well of emotion beyond what the audience sees. Have you brought that same approach to opera?

Well the great thing about opera is that you start with that, you start with music. I think that often when I’m directing—

[sudden beeping] Is that the fire alarm?

Yeah, do you want to call back in five minutes?

Sure, not a problem. Okay, great, thanks. Bye.

[hang up] [musical interlude]

[phone ringing] Well the hotel’s burning, but let’s finish the interview.

You were talking a little bit about the idea of music being able to convey a depth of emotion that might not otherwise be communicated visually.

In making a film there’s this sense that there are emotions -- especially in my earlier work where things were suppressed or things were not explicit and space was given for music and that was a very important part of those films. And yet there was always something that I was imagining and that I couldn’t really find until months after I was shooting. But in opera you’re starting with that. It’s amazing to listen to this music and to think of what’s happening. It’s amazing to listen to the last part of the first act of Die Walkure and an incredible erotic energy that Wagner’s able to create. What do you do visually? Or what does it formally do? It’s just so enthralling, really. And this music is just exceptional. The music is just so colored and so full of nuance and evocation and it’s beautiful. It’s designed to be interpreted, right? It’s set up that way.

Because you have experience in directing in all of these different mediums, how has your experience directing film affected your experience directing opera and theater and vice versa?

I don’t know if the two necessarily work well together. I think when I look at how opera has influenced my approach to film I’m not sure if it’s been a good thing. The film I was doing at the time of the Ring Cycle was Where The Truth Lies and we used this really big orchestral score and I kept it really loud and I was just so… there’s even a reference I think at one point to the two characters who are entertainers saying, “We were gods.” I was trying to directly import this sort of sense of space that they inhabited which was very different from where mere mortals were, and the score was just so pronounced. And I look at that film now and I go that’s odd, those were odd choices to have made. But I was coming off this extraordinarily powerful experience of Wagner’s music and trying to import that into my filmmaking practice, and maybe it wasn’t a smart thing to do.

It’s also interesting when you look at a film like Felicia’s Journey, there’s an actual moment where he stumbles across Rita Hayworth playing Salome in a hospital -- Bob Hoskins who’s this serial killer -- and it opens up his memory to this very horrific moment in his childhood. And the music at that point becomes very atonal and very jagged and dissonant. When you hear that sort of tradition of music applied in film, it actually comes across a little bit like a cheesy horror movie, right? It doesn’t have the same effect as when you watch it on the stage. So it’s made me uneasy, the way these things influence each other. That being said, I do think that when I’m on stage as a director I think very quickly. You don’t have a lot of rehearsal time, you’re really having to make decisions very quickly, so all of the muscles that you use on a film set are very helpful. But this show’s different because there are projections, there’s a lot of material and there’s a very obvious film reference at one point and I’m excited by that. I’m not quite sure if I’ll keep it -- I’ll have a better idea as the rehearsals proceed -- but it is perhaps a production where you can see my influence as a filmmaker a little more clearly.

Well, getting back to what you were saying about the multimedia aspect of Feng Yi Ting, it seems sort of appropriate to me that you would use a lot of projection and multimedia technology in your approach to it just because that’s a common theme of your work that idea that technology influences how we approach history.

Well in this case there’s a clash. Much as Han Feng the brilliant costume designer has created this clash between her modern costume and his very traditional one, I’m using kind of ancient projection systems in terms of shadow play and almost child-like machines on stage which are creating a light box effect, with very advanced computer generated approaches to the subtitling and other sort of aspects. So it’s all to do with this notion of the two traditions confronting each other and creating a new space.

Well, just to wrap up, when you think about Feng Yi Ting and how it’s going to premiere at Spoleto, what are you hoping that audiences will take away from this performance?

Well, hopefully they won’t be thinking about me. Hopefully they’ll be thinking about the singers first and foremost because that’s at the core of opera, what the singers are doing. If you’re thinking about the director then something’s not right. If you’re thinking about the director something is definitely out of whack because the most primary experience of the opera is the phenomenon of hearing the human voice extended to that extent. And in this piece we are going to hear a vocal technique that as Westerners we are not aware of. It’s going to sound unworldly and odd, and that should be the first thing you’re struck by, and hopefully the production cradles that and is able to help add to what will be an unforgettable evening of theater.

[musical interlude] Alright, that was my interview with Atom Egoyan. That will wrap it up for this episode of the Spoleto Spotlight podcast. You can find us online at or through iTunes. For more coverage of the Spoleto USA festival, subscribe to the Spoleto Spotlight page on Facebook and follow @SpoletoToday on Twitter. As for me, you can find me on Twitter at, and visit my website at

Until next time, see you at Spoleto!

[show close]