Wenji: Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute, is a contemporary opera based on the true story of poet and musician Cai Wenji. The opera tells the story of a scholar's daughter who becomes a prize of war and is torn between two worlds during the Han Dynasty. The piece is composed by Bun-Ching Lam, written by Xu Ying, and directed by Rinde Eckert. The opera is co-produced by the Hong Kong Arts Festival.
Bun-Ching Lam is a versatile composer who offers a wide catalogue of works which have been praised as "hauntingly attractive" by The San Francisco Chronicle. Born in the Portuguese colony of Macao, Bun-Ching Lam first studied piano at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and later received a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California at San Diego. Defying cultural boundaries, her work stretches both Chinese and Western musical idioms to create a highly personal and compelling musical voice.
Rinde Eckert is a writer, composer, singer, actor, and director whose music, music theater, and dance theater pieces have been performed throughout the United States and abroad. Called "a jack of all stage arts" by The New York Times, he has collaborated with composer Paul Dresher, with whom he has written, performed or directed ten pieces of theater or dance since 1980. Rinde Eckert has also worked extensively with the Margaret Jenkins Dance Co., first as a writer performer, and later as a composer.
Asia Society spoke with the composer and director during rehearsals for the opera in the Asia Society auditorium.
What is it about the Wenji story that attracted you?
Bun-Ching Lam: First of all, Wenji is a poet and musician. The story is very well known in China as are musical interpretations of the story. Also the whole situation of her being a woman and being kidnapped during a war seemed to relate to the contemporary world in which we live. Women still have no choices. They are commodities, and whenever there is a war they are [moved around]. The interracial marriage is also very interesting in Wenji. All of these issues come together in this story.
Do you see Wenji’s search for home as a universal theme?
Bun-Ching Lam: Absolutely. It is especially important if you are a self-imposed exile such as myself.
Rinde Eckert: Even though I am a native born American, I have had great difficulty identifying my culture. I don’t identify with the bourgeois aesthetics of America. I tried to take refuge in European culture by studying classical music, but that didn’t feel at all like home either. I finally relegated myself to the fact that I was a nomad. The way that I approach this project is from the standpoint of a nomad who shares many of the characteristics of the nomadic bretheren in the story, which are a certain degree of pragmatism, and a kind of poetic spirit as well. Poetry tends to be a more nomadic form than the novel. In the nomadic community you have only the stuff you can carry with you, so you don’t write vast tomes, you write epigrams and poems. The relationship to nature is different. When you have that nomadic spirit you start looking at these larger connections rather than discrete cultural connections. In many ways what is expressed here in Wenji is that for the nomads, race is not really that much of an issue. Diversity is a matter of form, at least as expressed in this opera. I’m sure that’s not true in normal life. I’ve tended to generalize my own situation as nomadic and I have had to establish my own cultural norms a very idiosyncratic artistic perspective in my own work, which completely resonates with Wenji.
How do both the set and the music reflect this nomadic culture?
Rinde Eckert: In the way that we’ve approached this, we’ve tried to use several of these as touchstones. The idea of the Silk Road was important, as there was a Silk Road exhibit at the Asia Society and the set is made largely of silk cloth. That has another advantage in that all of the elements are transportable. There’s no sense that anything is hidden. We’ve tried to expose everything on stage to reflect nomadic culture. Everybody sees what you have. It’s not under lock and key. You have to be able to pack it up and take it out again. We’ve reflected that in the way that we approach Wenji. It’s a very sparse world, almost like a pavilion. The whole stage is like a huge tent. I’ve also tried to allude to certain elements, like the scholarship of Wenji. There’s this moment in the beginning when the first time we see Wenji, she’s a scholar delivering a lecture. We focus on the scroll, and she’s finishing her lecture on that scroll, which also has the great advantage of telling us the story of Wenji before we see it. We set it firmly in a modern context in a very simple way, and then we tear down the wall between the modern world and the ancient story. There’s a sense that we’re dividing the world into a modern, sophisticated culture, and into antiquated culture, but the two are separated by this illusory film and once we tear down this film we see that the concerns of the past are also the concerns of the present. The distance between the two worlds is illusory. Even though this scroll that we see in the beginning is of the past, it’s entirely relevant and any notion to the contrary is illusory.
We’ve also divided the world into west and east to a degree. There are all sorts of divisions. We’ve created a cloth division between the orchestra and the stage, so the space itself appears to be divided. There’s also the difference in race between Ethan Herschenfeld, our king of the nomads, and Li Xiuying, our Wenji. East and west is intrinsic to this interpretation.