Three years ago, interdisciplinary artist Jennifer Wen Ma was standing underneath her own art installation, a 60-foot-long, 6-ton suspended garden made of live trees dipped in black ink. Suddenly she imagined the black garden as an arresting and beautiful setting for an opera.
Her vision has come to life in “Paradise Interrupted,” her first opera, making its world debut at the Spoleto Festival tonight. Conceived, directed and designed by Ma, composed by Huang Ruo and starring classical Kunqu opera singer Qian Yi, the opera is sung in Mandarin with English subtitles. The libretto is by Ma and Ji Chao.
“ ‘Paradise Interrupted’ is unusual,” Ma said. “Typically you have libretto, you have music, and then the visuals come later. With this piece it is completely led by vision first, and everything came after that.”
The protagonist is inspired by two women — Eve from the biblical Genesis story, and Du Liniang from the famous Ming Dynasty opera called “The Peony Pavilion.” Both stories feature gardens as paradise.
In the opera, the heroine is in search of a paradise she had once known, but lost, and hopes to regain again. “There is this question of whether this is a dream within a dream,” Ma said. “Is this an illusion, or is this an enchanted landscape that she physically experiences? I would like to ask that question to the audience and see what they come up with at the end.”
The garden that will greet the audience from the stage is an assemblage of laser-cut paper painted with black ink that will be unfolded and closed up again by the performers throughout the drama. The designer said that the garden should seem to move in response to the singers’ voices. Eight feet in height, the garden’s stark presence creates a looming landscape that mirrors the characters’ emotional state.
Finding a paper durable enough to stand on its own took months, said stage designer Matthew Hilyard. With a background in architecture and experience with kinetic designs, Hilyard has been helping Ma construct the piece for more than a year.
“The idea for the garden started out very high-tech, but became very low-tech,” Hilyard said. “We distilled it down to its most basic form. If we had done it mechanically it would never have moved in a natural and organic way.”
Ma, perhaps best known for her work on the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was born in Beijing and moved to America in 1986. From exhibitions to festivals to site-specific installations and, now, the opera stage, Ma continues to draw inspiration from traditional Chinese landscape painting.
Nature has played a very personal role in Ma’s body of work over the years. The accordion-like paper garden was inspired by her installations of plants dipped in Chinese ink. By painting the plants black, Ma freezes the process of photosynthesis and the plants sprout new leaves in order to thrive. When Ma first witnessed this she said: “It was an amazing, eye-opening experience for me to see the power of the life force pushing forward.”
Two of Ma’s black-painted trees are being installed at the entrance of Memminger Auditorium. But Ma decided against using her magical black gardens on stage for practical reasons. The process of dipping the plants is laborious and it didn’t provide the flexibility that the paper garden does for movement onstage.
For Ma, “Paradise Interrupted” is a story that merges Chinese and Western traditions of music and visual arts, blending myth, a love story and a tale of danger where humankind meets nature.
“We have strong Chinese rooting and a dedication to the traditional aesthetics,” Ma said, speaking of her collaborators Huang Ruo and Qian Yi. “But we are practitioners of contemporary art. We wanted to make a seamless work that combines different forms of traditional Chinese opera with the Western operatic tradition, while bringing a contemporary feel.”
Lauren Cavalli is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.