Acclaimed filmmaker Atom Egoyan (Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter) is directing The Spoleto Festival’s production of “Feng Yi Ting,” 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 “Feng Yi Ting.” What follows are highlights from the full interview, which appears online in audio and transcript form.
Q: Is this the first time you’ve worked with a project that’s so inherently grounded in Chinese culture?
A: Yes. I’ve really never immersed myself in a piece of Chinese mythology. The learning curve is extraordinary. I actually think it’s one of the best theatrical experiences I’ve ever had because it’s an unusual piece. I’ve never been remotely close to the world of Chinese opera. I don’t 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. That’s its closest Western equivalent. When I first heard it I thought there were two women singing. Now, what’s interesting is that I’ve heard the vocal range before in Armenian folk music, where you also have these very high almost nasal sounds. There’s 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 ... it’s 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 it’s very simply presented. I mean, the costumes are elaborate, the gestures are elaborate, but from a staging perspective it’s 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 “Feng Yi Ting”?
A: I think you’ve 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 “Feng Yi Ting” just because that’s a common theme of your work, that idea that technology influences how we approach history.
A: In this case there’s a clash. I’m 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 it’s all to do with this notion of the two traditions confronting each other and creating a new space.
Q: 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 responsibilities?
A: I think it’s even more collective than traditional theater because you’re also working with musicians of course, and a conductor, and 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. 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 really diminish in our culture, even though cinema arguably is 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.”
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 that’s what you’ve mainly focused on.
A: 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 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. That’s unique to the theatrical form.