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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.
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.’