Toronto’s Luminato Festival presents Feng Yi Ting; a Chinese opera directed by Atom Egoyan
When Luminato announced it was presenting Feng Yi Ting, a Chinese opera sung in Mandarin and directed by Canadian director Atom Egoyan, it piqued my interest. I grew up with my grandparents in the house and I remember they’d often listen to Chinese opera records and watched bootlegged performances of traditional Chinese operas recorded on grainy Betamax video cassettes.
I have to admit I never developed a taste for Chinese opera. I suspect many Western theatre- and opera-goers won’t have had much exposure to traditional Chinese opera either and that’s why I found the concept of a Western director directing a Chinese opera primarily for a Western audience so intriguing.
Feng Yi Ting is composed by contemporary Chinese composer Guo Wenjing in a musical style that blends traditional Chinese and Western instruments. The vocals are sung in a traditional style but the orchestration is contemporary. The blending of East and West as well as the blending of the traditional and the contemporary are the hallmarks of this production. However, I thought these dualities clashed more than they harmonized.
Feng Yi Ting features the talents of soprano and Sichuan opera star Shen Taimei and countertenor Jiang Qihu from the Peking opera. If you’re familiar with Western opera, the Chinese opera vocal style is very different. Chinese opera is sung entirely in head-voice and ornamented with strings of long heavily-modulated sustained notes. It can actually come across sounding very jarring to those who are unfamiliar with the style and it takes a while for Western ears to adjust.
Shen plays Diao Chan, one of the four beauties of ancient Chinese legend. Styled by Egoyan in this production as an archetypal “femme fatale,” she is set on a plot by her godfather to bring about a coup d’état by seducing two powerful allies; warlord Dong Zhou and his godson, General Lu Bu (Jiang), and setting them against each other.
For this production, Egoyan plays with the idea of Diao being a puppet master, manipulating these men to her will, and he ornaments the stage with various figurines which are sometimes lit to cast intricate shadow patterns on the backdrop.
While the director incorporates the stylized gesturing used in traditional Chinese opera much of the movement design in the piece still feels stiff. This rigidity in the blocking is contrasted by the use of screens and scrims allowing for a dynamic layering effect of shadows and projections.
Here again, I thought the blending of the traditional (shadows) and contemporary (projections) created more of a dissonance than a coherent blend. Nowhere was this clash more pronounced than the effect where the letters of the words used in the projected surtitles fly away like snowflakes; I found it distracting and thought it felt gimmicky.
With Feng Yi Ting director Atom Egoyan attempted a cultural cross-pollination and while the results are mixed the concept is interesting and it might be worth a look if you’re curious about Chinese opera.
Operas are sometimes long, multi-act, evening-length affairs, they’re like multi-course meals, but at a mercifully short 55-minute run time Feng Yi Ting is like a tasting-portion; the perfect size to sample. Despite the sometimes inelegant ways it blends the east and west, the traditional and contemporary, if you’re looking for a way to discover Chinese opera this would be a good gateway production.
- Feng Yi Ting runs through June 22 at the MacMillan Theatre, 80 Queens Park, Toronto
- Performances June 20, 21 and 22 at 8:00PM
- Tickets $25 – $65
- For tickets and additional information visit www.luminato.com
Photo by Julia Lynn