Mo Fan, the composer and librettist of the opera Thunderstorm recently staged at the London Coliseum meets with Rivka Jacobson.
Mo Fan is a contemporary Chinese composer with roots deep in China’s folk music. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), in which urban youth was transferred to rural regions, he gathered and recorded from local peasants Chines folk songs.
Thunderstorm is an adaption of Cao Yu’s seminal play of the same title. Fan’s opera treads between tradition and modernity in both its style and content, exploring themes of love, corruption and oppression in Old Shanghai.
He seems excited and delighted to have his first opera staged here in London.
Rivka Jacobson: Where were you during China Cultural Revolution?
Mo Fan: I was born in 1949. The Cultural Revolution began in 1966. I was at High School. During the Cultural Revolution, students and young intellectuals were sent to the villages to learn from the peasants and farmers, to see or know where you are coming from. I was sent to Heilongjiang (a province in Northern China). When I was in the villages I did a lot of farming but I thought I needed to learn something. So this is where I started learning to compose music. I loved music and knew something about writing music.
RJ: Which years did you spend there?
MF: Between 1969-76.
RJ: Did you learn composition from the peasants?
MJ: When I was in the Lulu area, in a village in Northern China, I was asked to direct peasants in a play because I had already been writing and composing for some time by then. When I returned from Heilongjiang, Northern China I knew I needed to take the National Exam and to go to university. By this time, I had already accumulated loads of works.
RJ: Would you say that the exile gave you an opportunity to really feel the Chinese people? Were you interested in traditional or classical music? What were your interests at the time?
MF: I had a very broad range of interests in music and because of my knowledge of these folk songs, when I attended the National Exam for Shanghai Music School, often the student will be asked to sing one folk song, but because I had accumulated so much knowledge about these folk songs, the examiner asked me to sing for half an hour, with various folk songs from all regions of China. When I attended the Shanghai Music School, I learned Western styles of opera. I tried to absorb as much as possible about Western opera, whether by watching video tapes or listening to cassettes, so only in the fourteen years after my graduation did I begin picking up and writing in the Western format.
RJ: Who would you say was the most influential of all Western composers on your own work?
MF: Verdi, Puccini and Wagner.
RJ: There is a bit of Chinese singing. Would you consider your work more influenced by Western or Chinese music?
MF: So basically, Thunderstorm, like my other later works is experimental opera: the structure is Western, and in this framework it has a Chinese twist, it is tweaked with a Chinese touch. My other works after Thunderstorm, for instance, I would approach with a new ambition. For instance (30:53) is a combination of Chinese and Western opera and then for (31:08) is like a folk song from South China plus Western opera and then there is another High Mountain and Water is a traditional Chinese play with traditional Chinese instruments plus Western opera. Each new work, based on the Western opera framework, but on top of that, you layer it with Chinese music.
RJ: In this opera you give the main role to a dramatic soprano, a woman.
MF: Yes, indeed. She also has a bit different modification on top of that; you can see the influence of some Chinese folk songs in her singing.
RJ: How do you, as a modern, twenty-first century composer look at the role of the women in this opera compared to Puccini in Madame Butterfly and other operas by European composers in which the woman is often the victim? Is your woman a victim or a fighting heroine?
MF: So basically, each character could be the lead in a play, but for me Fanyi is an interesting woman. Of course, she has been oppressed. ‘Thunder’ represents her own voice and how she would like to fight against all if this oppression, but ultimately, her behaviour also hurt what she loved, as well.
RJ: Is her loss of the loved one are necessary to the narrative because she broke the social taboos and had an affair with her stepson?
MF: She represents more complicated human characteristics, especially if we consider the historical context. If we look at Act I, the environment is humid, hot, everything is under the table. There is a lot of tension there. The thunderstorm finally arrives in Act II. Ultimately, Fanyi is a fighter- a force fighting against her oppression. In this sense, it’s not only a ‘female’ role. It’s about the force that history needs against unfairness…
RJ: How do Chinese audiences respond to this mixture of Western culture and traditional culture?
MF: There are two examples. Basically, this type of music is actually quite down to earth and gets a good reception from local audiences. For instance, with Thunderstorm, the very old lady, kind of grandma figures told me they really loved this opera- they are the traditional, Shanghai type of audience member, saying this is so different to what you usually listen to. In another location, where we played this production of Thunderstorm, it moved the audience to tears. It was the Chinese music, as a keynote for each character.
Originally I just wanted to compose opera I really liked and thought that if it could be performed by several music college students that would be fun. When Shanghai Opera House said they wanted to make it big, to make it grand, so we added a choir, new characters, new elements.
RJ: Your decision to have a chorus at the side of the stage for example, seems to be siding with tradition- it’s more like a Greek chorus. Why did you think it important to introduce a chorus to a modern opera?
MF: Yes, a Greek choir is a traditional fixture. In Thunderstorm, the chorus is dressed in black, which represents the mood. At first it represents the storm cloud, later on they dress in white like some sort of spirit. A Chinese audience would not know that a chorus is necessarily ‘traditional’. This is still a very new concept for many of them. Other contemporary Chinese opera composers would use some very avant garde, experimental music. But for me, I wouldn’t want to use a more contemporary thing because I wouldn’t want to scare a Chinese audience. Greek choirs are not a part of Chinese culture. So in a way, it is very traditional, but also very new. So you need to take time, to let them absorb, before introducing more radical changes.
RJ: Do you think that the Western audience understood, or can relate to this modern Chinese opera in the same way as a Chinese audience would?
MF: I was a bit anxious about Western audience feedback, but ultimately, the understanding towards humanity and towards music should be common, no matter where the audience is coming from.
Read the Thunderstorm review here.