An interview with Tsung Yeh and Goh Boon Teck about Savage Land – An Opera in Concert, which was presented at Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts in 2015.
What is Savage Land and what is so special about it? We find out as we catch up with conductor Tsung Yeh and director and set designer Goh Boon Teck, who tell us more about this adaptation of Chinese playwright Cao Yu's classic play The Wilderness.
How and when was this performance conceptualised?
Goh: After our previous collaboration on Thunderstorm, we talked about staging another of Cao Yu's plays. One thing led to another, and voilà, Savage Land – An Opera in Concert was born.
Yeh: Yes! I watched the opera version of Savage Land in China in the early 1990s. Later on, when I was in the United States, I found out that it was the first opera that was composed in the Western operatic style but sung entirely in Chinese, and that it received rave reviews in the West. Considering the strong dramatic elements in the original script and its great artistic value, the two of us hit it off on the idea and decided to stage our own production of Savage Land.
Goh: To top it off, Professor Jin Xiang composed the music and Cao Yu's daughter, Wan Fang, per-sonally adapted the libretto from the original play.
Yeh: Wan Fang's adaptation added an element of love to Cao Yu's original script, which was more stark and gory. Jin Xiang's music expressed the drama in Italian opera and added many modern dissonant harmonies so as to heighten the tension and conflict in the work. This has given the director a lot of creative space to play with.
Goh: A big playground, indeed!
Having worked on this production, what are some of your insights on the play?
Goh: To be honest, when I first read this play in my secondary school days, I did not really understand the work. I only felt that this play was very exaggerated. As I re-read the play for this opera, I thought to myself that this play is so amazing, and there is so much drama in it that we seldom explore.
Yeh: The story took place in the late Qing Dynasty. The Western powers had invaded China, followed by the Japanese, coupled with rampant corruption throughout the country as warlords fought with each other for dominion. Extreme social inequality had brought on widespread poverty and people found it hard to make a living. Our younger generation in Singapore needs to understand why their forefathers left their homeland at that time to head south.
Goh: Also, Cao Yu created characters that encompassed the extremities of humanity—from the noblest to the wicked. His plays exposed the complexity and duplicity of human nature.
Yeh: Yes, indeed. Take the character Chou Hu. You feel sorry for him because he was persecuted unjustly and the love of his life was forced to marry someone else while he was imprisoned. Yet, what happened in the end? He committed a fatal mistake—he killed an innocent person. And even though he managed to escape from his enemy's house with his lover, he was so remorseful and guilty that he lost his mind in the end.
Goh: Amidst all these drama, Cao Yu wrote that Jin Zi was pregnant, and we see the twists and turns from between the lines. Just when you thought all hope was lost, he gaves you a glimmer of it. That, I think, is the work of a true master.
What challenges did you face in the production of this opera concert?
Goh: The scale of this production is huge, with more than 80 Chinese orchestra musicians, a 60–strong choir, and 12 actors! I am fortunate to have Maestro Yeh's guidance and unfailing support, so no matter how pressured we are, our confidence never wavered from the planning stage till now.
Yeh: As this is an opera presented in the format of a concert, the difficulty lies in the very limited amount of space on stage, as the entire orchestra will be up there with the actors as they sing and move about.
Goh: Savage Land, as a stage play, gives actors a lot of flexibility and room to play with their movements and positions. With this in mind, I was pondering over this question as I listened to the music: just how much movement is sufficient? For now, I am very inclined towards getting the actors to use fewer movements but to connect and touch the audience through their singing and emotions. In other words—to play up a lot more on their emotions.
This opera demands a great deal from the singers. Not only do they need to sing, they have to act as well. Furthermore, our younger generation is unfamiliar with the historical backdrop of Savage Land. Hence, during rehearsals, we have to keep reminding ourselves how things were like in that era, as well as the temperament and psyche of the characters. Only when they fully comprehend and internalise these details can they sing with greater understanding and emote more accurately.
Savage Land – An Opera In Concert is set to take the stage at this year's Huayi Festival on 28 February 2015.