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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Madame White Snake was commissioned by Opera Boston and the Beijing Music Festival. It is Zhou’s most ambitious project and perhaps his most overt synthesis of Eastern and Western musical traditions. The opera is based on a popular 1000-year-old Chinese folk tale, retold in English by librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs. It is the story of a powerful white snake demon that transforms itself into a beautiful woman to experience love, but is, in the end, betrayed by her suspicious husband. A Peking Opera–style prelude and postlude, which formally describe the action, frame four acts, each introduced by a children’s chorus singing a Tang Dynasty poem describing the four seasons.

Photo: Jason Dailey

“The opera functions almost like a symphony,” says Gil Rose, artistic director of Opera Boston and conductor of the work’s world premiere in February 2010. “Other operas do this, like Puccini’s La Bohème. The first act is expository, the second is a scherzo in a major key, the third is a scherzo in a minor key, and the fourth is a minor-key resolution. Madame White Snake works in a similar fashion and finds the through line of symphonic work.”

Zhou’s vocal and orchestral music for the opera unfolds over 100 taut minutes and spans centuries as well as continents. There is no intermission.

Singers alternate among traditional operatic set pieces, Schoenbergian Sprechstimme, Peking Opera’s stylized rhythms, and precipitous vocal slides. The chamber-sized orchestra features Eastern and Western instruments, and the music moves seamlessly from clashing dissonances and percussive rhythms into sweeping, Pucciniesque melodies that lend surprising accessibility to the opera’s complex and often atonal score. “Zhou has a highly developed sense of the dramatic in his music,” says Rose, “and has a really good handle on pacing, which you can hear even in his orchestral work. Like Puccini, he knows how to hold his audience.”

Puccini has always been Zhou’s favorite opera composer (“He wrote some of the most beautiful melodies in the world”) and was the only composer whose scores Zhou consulted while working on Madame White Snake, primarily to study Puccini’s treatments of vocal lines. “Puccini is heavily orchestrated,” says Zhou, “but he also gives space to the voice.” Zhou didn’t attend a single concert while writing the opera, and even refrained from listening to recordings, so as not to be swayed by outside influences. “I didn’t want to hear any other music. Only what was in my head.”

It took Zhou three years to complete Madame White Snake. The process was so psychologically draining and overwhelming that he shut down after the project was completed and didn’t compose again for a full year. “My feelings are reflected in my process,” he says, “which is very slow and very careful. For the past few years, my heart had been with the opera. When the score was done, I felt depressed for a long time.”

Zhou Long seems well suited to the slow pace and quiet life of America’s heartland, where he moved 12 years ago to teach composition alongside Chen Yi at the University of Missouri–Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance. The couple’s comfortable high-rise apartment has room for dedicated studio spaces for each; its inviting living area, with large windows overlooking the nearby Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, is centered around a wooden dining table, where Zhou and Chen discuss their music and students over steaks, mashed taro, and steamed bok choy, or while sipping Chinese fermented Pu-erh tea, a favorite of Zhou’s.

The refrigerator in the extra-long galley kitchen is covered with Chinese takeout menus. A map of the United States is taped to the kitchen wall, and, though the couple has no children, “American Presidents” and “Animal Alphabet” placemats lie on the bistro table and counter. “It’s educational,” says Chen enthusiastically, as ebullient as her husband is restrained. “It helps us to improve our English. At the start of the school year, we follow all the parents to Costco to get these things.”

Zhou clearly has adapted to American culture. Yet it took writing a Western-style opera and winning the Pulitzer for the composer to finally feel accepted by his adopted country. “I’ve lived here for almost 30 years,” he says, as he puffs on his pipe, “and have been entirely working to blend the cultures. I think that I carefully combined Western and Eastern cultures, and that I did it well. I don’t want Madame White Snake to taste like wine and beer mixed together. You can’t ever say that you have the right or perfect result, but I believe in what I did.

“The Pulitzer gave me more confidence,” he says. “It’s a quintessentially American award. That it could be offered not only to American-born composers, but to a composer who immigrated to the United States and became an American citizen, really means something to me. Now I feel like an American.”

To listen to MadameWhite Snake, please visit www.wgbh.org/995/madamewhitesnake.cfm.

Stacey Kors is a freelance music critic and arts writer. Her work has been published in Gramophone, the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She lives in New York City.

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