An Operatic Blend of Cultures

When the Chinese-born composer Zhou Long won the Pulitzer in music this spring for his opera Madame White Snake, he established himself not only as a prominent composer, but — in his mind — as an American.

by Stacey Kors Published Summer 2011
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Zhou in his studio at the China Broadcasting Corporation in Beijing, 1984. / Courtesy Zhou LongPuccini had disappeared.

It was September 1969, and 16-year-old Zhou Long, a student from Beijing, arrived in the harsh climate of China’s northeast Heilongjiang province, 1200 miles away from his family. His father was a painter and fine arts professor, and his mother a Western-style voice teacher. Zhou ’93GSAS, who had taken lessons in voice and piano, had been preparing for conservatory study. Now, he was assigned to drive a tractor, grow crops, and spend hours every day hauling heavy sacks of beans and wheat down a narrow gangplank to the granary. During the long winters, the winds roared and the temperatures averaged nine degrees Fahrenheit, sending the inhabitants into underground dwellings.


This was the Heilongjiang Production and Construction Corps, a state farm near Hegang City. Zhou desperately missed his family and his music, and tried to find solace in the only melodies allowed on the farm: revolutionary songs, which he taught himself to play on his accordion. “I played some operas from the Cultural Revolution, too,” he says. “But back home I had played art songs and listened to Puccini.”

But Puccini was gone. The Cultural Revolution, Mao’s brutal program of socialist orthodoxy that began in 1966, had expunged many things that smacked of the indulgent, capitalist West. Hundreds of thousands of city youth, like Zhou, left their families for the countryside, where they learned agricultural skills through manual labor. (The Chinese Communist Party allowed one child per household to remain at home; Zhou’s younger sister was assigned to be a weaver in a Beijing factory.) Universities were shut down, and the future of a generation of talented students was now uncertain. “I had no chance, no hope without higher education,” says Zhou. “I knew I would never become what I wanted to be: a composer.”

At Zhou Long’s home in Kansas City, Missouri, the walls are decorated with scrolls of Chinese calligraphy. The shelves hold books on 20th-century composers and music, color photos from Zhou’s life in America — graduation portraits, pictures of Zhou conducting, vacation snapshots — and a handful of small black-and-white images from his days on the state farm. There are also several classical music awards. This past spring, he added another: the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in music, for his opera Madame White Snake.

Described by the Pulitzer Committee as “a deeply expressive opera that draws on a Chinese folk tale to blend the musical traditions of the East and the West,” Madame White Snake is Zhou’s first opera and the first full-length operatic work to be awarded a Pulitzer since Robert Ward’s The Crucible in 1962. Zhou is the first Asian American composer to win the music prize, a fact he finds inspiring and humbling. “I thought I probably couldn’t win it because I wasn’t considered American,” he says. “But my wife never agreed with me. She said, ‘You are American. You should have a chance.’”

Chairman Mao’s death in 1976 brought an end to the Cultural Revolution. The next year, Zhou was returning to Beijing from a field trip collecting folk songs when he heard an astonishing announcement from the state radio over the train’s public-address system: China’s college entrance examination was to resume. “I couldn’t believe it,” says Zhou. “I had given up my dream of going to college.”

Once back in Beijing, he immediately applied to the prestigious Central Conservatory of Music, joining more than 1000 musicians competing for openings in the institution’s first regular class in more than a decade. Zhou was one of only 30 people selected for the so-called Class of ’77 (though instruction didn’t actually resume until 1978). At the conservatory, Zhou, who listened to a great deal of Western opera while growing up, learned more about traditional Chinese music. “Peking Opera and Chinese instruments are supposed to be my cultural background, but they’re not from my childhood and not in my blood,” says Zhou. There was a requirement for the first class after the Cultural Revolution to study traditional Chinese music, which, Zhou says, “was a smart idea, because almost everything had been lost.”

After he graduated in 1983, Zhou was posted to the National Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra of China as composer-in-residence, a powerful but undemanding position where he wrote 30-second music segments for state radio and television. The freedom and flexibility of his schedule gave him time for his own compositions, tonal works that drew heavily on his recent studies and interest in Tang Dynasty high culture. Nonetheless, he was already beginning to exhibit a modernist, experimental sensibility. His string quartet Song of the Ch’in, for example, which won first prize in the Chinese National Composition Competition in 1985, transfers the idiomatic sounds of the ch’in — an ancient seven-stringed instrument similar to a zither — to a Western string quartet.

The prize might have been a sign of things to come, but 1985 held an even bigger event for Zhou.

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