Film with opera becomes opera with film – in a project by a Chinese composer and a Dutch filmmaker

Het Innerlijke Landschap

(The Inner Landscape)

Guo Wenjing, Frank Scheffer, Nieuw Ensemble, Ed Spanjaard

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‘You need to know the past to be able to go into the future,’ is the motto of Guo Wenjing, one of China’s most famous contemporary composers. Especially for the Nieuw Ensemble, he composed a chamber opera which combines traditional opera from his native Sichuan with his own music. The performance starts with a documentary made by Dutch filmmaker Frank Scheffer about the creation of the composition and its context. When the famous opera diva Shen Tiemei walks on stage, the film literally shifts to the background and the performance continues as the opera Si Fan. While the singer in her traditional costume conveys the old story of a young nun hankering for the love of a man and a life outside the convent, the music pits the rapid changes in China against its ancient culture and traditions: the inner landscape of a fascinating country.

programme

BACKGROUND INFORMATION

Half Chinese opera, half documentary, Het Innerlijke Landschap (The Inner Landscape) is an extraordinary project by Dutch filmmaker Frank Scheffer, composer Guo Wenjing and the Nieuw Ensemble directed by Ed Spanjaard. It's a performance in two parts which centres around Guo Wenjing, one of the most significant Chinese composers of his generation. Part of the performance is Guo Wenjing's new opera Si Fan, in which he explores the role of the artist in the rapidly changing Chinese society and seeks to engage in a dialogue between contemporary Western music and traditional opera from the Chinese province of Sichuan.

Het Innerlijk Landschap complements another Dutch-Chinese performance in this year's festival, the music theatre performance As Big As The Sky, which is composed and directed by Dutch composer/director Arnoud Noordegraaf and stage designed by the famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. In Het Innerlijk Landschap the roles of the nationalities have been reversed: Guo Wenjing's music is accompanied by Frank Scheffer's documentary images.

The first part of Het Innerlijke Landschap shows part of Scheffer's documentary of the same title, which deals with Guo Wenjing and Sichuan opera. The film is accompanied by a live performance by the Nieuw Ensemble, visible through a semi-transparant screen which the film is projected onto. When the documentary part of the performance is finished, the screen disappears, fully revealing the musicians of the Nieuw Ensemble and opera star Shen Tiemei, who now take centre stage performing the world premiere of Guo Wenjing's Si Fan, the opera the audience will have seen the composer working on in the film they've just been shown.

Born and raised in the mountainous province of Sichuan, Guo Wenjing (1956) was one of one hundred students who were selected from 17,000 applicants and admitted into the newly re-opened Central Conservatory in Beijing in 1978. Unlike many of his class mates, including the now famous Tan Dun, who moved to the West after graduation, Guo decided to actually return to his province. In hindsight he has said that his return to Sichuan and his intensive relationship with the music of this region has strongly influenced and shaped his work; it also meant that he did not have to take any of the time-consuming jobs at the conservatory which many of his fellow students got entangled in, leaving him plenty of time to dedicate to his composing. Because of his close connection with his motherland, Guo's music was selected for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in 2008. Joël Bons, artistic leader of the Nieuw Ensemble, heard about Guo for the first time in 1988; Guo’s work by the Nieuw Ensemble was first performed in 1991. Holland Festival presented the premiere of Nieuw Ensemble’s opera Wolvendorp in 1994.

Guo has written his chamber opera Si Fan without a libretto. Instead, he has asked Shen Tiemei, the greatest star in Sichuan opera, to select a few of her favourite passages from the tradition. Guo has taken these old fragments, often featuring strong women, and contrasted them with his own modern idiom. As a result of the rapid changes in China, all kinds of traditional music are disappearing; some varieties of Chinese opera have survived in a more commercial form; others have been relegated to the margins with performances restricted to the countryside. Guo's take on these developments is: ‘You need to have the courage to embrace the past in order to be able to look ahead to the future.’

Scheffers' documentary shows the contrasts which dominate life in contemporary China: traditional culture versus modern reality, city versus countryside, East versus West. These contrasts are also reflected in the film's formal structure. Scheffer has constructed his film using three spheres or layers. The first sphere is that of Guo's life and his work as a composer and teacher in Beijing. The second sphere revolves around the province of Sichuan and its provincial capital city Chongqing, featuring the story of Sichuan opera and singer Shen Tiemei. The third and last sphere is the most poetic, in which the imagination of the viewer is addressed, featuring the dramatic scenery and age-old folklore of Sichuan.

Guo's colourful, intuitive music has been associated with the impressive natural landscapes of his native county, but he's always pointed out that his work is not a figurative tone painting; the colours he evokes in his music do not express the mountains, but rather the souls of the people of Sichuan. Guo: ‘My music is about the inner landscape.’

Het Innerlijke Landschap Sichuan Opera Gezelschap Jin Qiao Allegri Scheffer 6 Breed

Synopsis Si Fan

The Sichuan opera Si Fan tells the story of the young woman Sekong who is sent to be a Buddhist nun at the Fahua Temple by her parents because of childhood illnesses. However, she finds the quietude and loneliness in the temple simply unbearable and escapes from the mountain to find freedom and love. This opera is one of the seminal classics of traditional Chinese opera. It advocates humanity whilst criticizing the abstinent lives of Buddhist monks and nuns.

Whilst Ye Ben is the most challenging play for male actors in Chinese theatre, Si Fan is the most demanding for actresses, an extended monologue which requires the utmost from the performers' acting and singing skills. The opera perfectly displays the unique features of Sichuan opera, including its characteristic accompaniment of Bang (vocal accompaniment), Da (percussion) and Chang (singing). The leading actress Tiemei has an accurate understanding and control of the young girl’s longing for love. The girl’s innocence, loneliness and melancholy are incisively and vividly conveyed in her acting. With the unique performance from Tiemei, the young nun Sekong becomes charming, beautiful and graceful. Her emotional changes and the fluctuations in her heart are vividly expressed through Tiemei's impulsive movements with the hossu – a short stick with bundled hair used to keep flies but also hidden desires away - which she holds throughout the play.

The opera starts with appealing Kun tunes, while the Qupai (the generic term for a fixed melody used in traditional Chinese music) Jiang Tou Jin Gui occasionally switches naturally and tactfully between major and minor tunes within the tonic. Apart from the sadness and melancholy, there's also a tone of briskness flowing through the opera. The lines in the libretto determine the emotion of the melody, either sadness or happiness. With the unique performing methods of Sichuan opera such as Gaoqiang without accompaniment as well as Bang, Da and Chang, the reluctance of this 19-year-old young nun to live a lonely Buddhist life and her longing for love and happiness in the secular life are portrayed profoundly in a stunning performance.

Het Innerlijke Landschap Guo Wenjing half breed Het Innerlijke Landschap Shen Tiemei Melle Van Essen 1 Halfbreed

BIOGRAPHIES

The Chinese composer Guo Wenjing (1956) was born in Chongqin, a historic city in the mountains of Sichuan. The combination of urban tension and rural folklore in his formative years has fused together into a highly distinctive compositional voice. Currently teaching composition at his alma mater, the Central Music Conservatory in Beijing, Guo's extensive body of work for various instrumentations include the internationally lauded operas Wolf Cub Village (world premiere with the Nieuw Ensemble at the Holland Festival 1994) and Night Banquet (1997-98/2001). The former work, based on Lu Xun's Diary of a Madman, was hailed by Le Monde as 'a masterpiece of madness', and compared to Alban Berg's Wozzeck and Shostakovich's The Nose. Music critics from all over the world have praised Guo's music for its 'unparallelled beauty and dramatic power' (Le Monde), 'showing his credentials as a man of the theatre' (Financial Times) 'with a highly original sense of operatic possibility' (The Independent). In China, Guo Wenjing is regarded as one of the Top 100 Living Artists of China, an honourable distinction. His music is performed world-wide by a large number of renowned orchestras and ensembles. Guo Wenjing's previous contribution to the Holland Festival was his music for Chinese heroines, a trilogy, in 2008.

Having studied at the Academy for Industrial Design in Eindhoven, the Vrije Academie (Free Academy) in The Hague and at the Dutch Film Academy in Amsterdam, the Dutch documentary maker and experimental filmmaker Frank Scheffer (Venlo, 1956) is known for his films Time is Music (1988), Voyage to Cythera (1999), Conducting Mahler (1996) and A Labyrinth of Time (2004), amongst many others. Scheffer's intuitive, poetic films predominantly deal with the connections between film language and music, the similarities in their relation to rhythm, the experience of time and memory. Drawing his inspiration from the works of the post-war generation of composers, including Louis Andriessen, Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Elliot Carter, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Frank Zappa, Scheffer uses visual images like a composer uses notes to create a new, abstract experience. In his films, image and sound combine to offer the audience a new, individual visual and aural experience - which is why he is often referred to as a 'pure filmmaker'. A number of his films have been shown at the Holland Festival, including some 18 films as part of his 43-part film programme A labyrinth of images in 2001, and his Mahler: ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen in 2004, which was the concluding part to his trilogy about Gustav Mahler, the conductor Ricardo Chailly and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. For this year's Holland Festival, Scheffer has been one of the main contributors to Het Innerlijke Landschap (The Inner Landscape), a piece which combines Scheffer's documentary film about the Chinese composer Guo Wenjing and the decline of Chinese opera with live music composed by Guo and performed by the Nieuw Ensemble.

Shen Tiemei is the president of Chongqing Chuan Theater, vice-chairman of the China Theatre Association and one of the most representative inheritors of Sichuan opera (state-level intangible cultural heritage in China). She is a renowned performing artist of Sichuan opera, the leading actress of contemporary Sichuan opera, winner of the Wenhua Performing Prize granted by China's Ministry of Culture and three-time winner of the most esteemed award for Chinese Opera performance, the Meihua Prize. Using elements from Beijing opera and other local traditional operas, Tiemei has developed her own singing style within Sichuan opera, which has greatly enriched the art of opera singing with regard to the power and possibility of artistic expression and appeal. Her way of singing is delicate, clear and bright. As well as giving vivid expression to her roles, her singing is also of the highest artistic quality. With her great technique and beautiful voice she is recognised as the foremost figure in the field of Sichuan opera. Endowing Sichuan opera with a brand new meaning in relation to the modern context, Shen Tiemei has brought this traditional form of Chinese opera into the world of modern opera. Tiemei has performed in Italy, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Australia, Singapore, Korea, the United States and many other countries. After a highly successful run, her play Feng Yi Ting was performed at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 2012, receiving fantastic reviews from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. Tiemei's exquisite acting and singing performance led the Financial Times reviewer to award it the full five stars.

Formed in 1980, the Nieuw Ensemble is a music ensemble with a basic structure consisting of 12 musicians. Under the leadership of principal conductor Ed Spanjaard, the group has developed into a leading international ensemble for contemporary music. Praised for their groundbreaking work in the fields of innovative programming and new repertoire, the ensemble engages in a large variety of activities, giving concerts all around the world. In 1998, the Nieuw Ensemble and its artistic director Joël Bons were awarded the Prince Bernhard Fund Music Prize for their ‘markedly lively and adventurous programming which can be described as groundbreaking, both in the literal and figurative senses of the word’. The ensemble has introduced a great number of non-Western composers, as well as having toured in China, performing in Hong Kong and Shanghai. The Nieuw Ensemble has worked in close collaboration with composers such as Boulez, Carter, Ferneyhough, Kagel, Kurtág and Loevendie. As well as Chinese operas, the ensemble has also performed Raaff by Robin de Raaff (De Nederlandse Opera/Holland Festival, 2004), Brian Ferneyhough's Shadowtime (Munich, Paris, London and New York, 2004/2005) and Micha Hamel's Snow White (in collaboration with the Nederlandse Reisopera, 2008). The ensemble teamed up with cinematographer Frank Scheffers for his TV documentary about Pierre Boulez' composition Eclat. On CD, the Nieuw Ensemble has been published widely, including on their own label Zebra.

Credits

music
Guo Wenjing
direction
Frank Scheffer
vocals
Shen Tiemei
conductor
Ed Spanjaard
performed by
Nieuw Ensemble
drama direction
Miranda Lakerveld
set
Jia Zhao

This performance was made possible with support by