During the late Ming Dynasty in China, roughly around the time that Arthurian knights were hacking themselves to pieces in the name of chivalry and the King across Europe, a writer named Luo Guanzhong authored a remarkable piece of literature. Called Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the tale was a historical novel for which the word epic is an understatement. Set during the final decades of the Han Dynasty some 1,000 years previous, Luo's narrative crammed several hundred characters, most of them based upon Han-era historical figures, into the space of 120 chapters and approximately 1,500 pages. Romance of the Three Kingdoms — or ROTK, as enthusiasts refer to it — is in many ways China's Iliad and Odyssey, with a good portion of Shakespeare's oeuvre tossed in. Seven hundred years after it was first written, ROTK remains China's most popular novel. And why not? It features kings, princes, usurpers, bloodthirsty warriors, beautiful maidens, and a horde of vengeful eunuchs. There are battles, ambushes, assignations, assassinations, and an abundance of political scheming that would make the U.S. Capitol look like a nursery school of drooling babes.
Of all the hundreds of characters and intricate plots across which ROTK ranges, Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan and composer Guo Wenjing have chosen the merest sliver as the subject for their new opera, Feng Yi Ting, which sees its American premiere at the Dock Street Theatre on May 27. The upshot: The empire hangs on a thread. A powerful aristocrat named Dong Zhuo plays the emperor like a puppet and terrorizes the population. His adopted godson, a showboating general named Lü Bu, is the brawn to Zhuo's brain. Enter minister Wang Yun, a world-class schemer with an ace up his sleeve by the name of Diao Chan, a svelte tigress upon whose lovely head Yun hatches a diabolical plan: to cause both Dong and Lü to fall madly in love with her, after which she is to wield the younger against the senior, slicing in two the knot that constricts the empire.
Spoiler alert: It works.
The entirety of Feng Yi Ting occupies itself with a single conversation in which Diao Chan, using all her formidable wiles, meets Lü Bu in a pavilion (the feng yi ting of the title) in Dong's garden and persuades him to kill Dong or lose her forever, since Dong has claimed her as his bride-to-be. It's a lot to ask of a new boyfriend, but history tells us she pulled it off. How? That's precisely what interests Egoyan the most.
"She's something of a femme fatale," Egoyan muses of Diao Chan. "The part of this story that we see is her enacting this plan. The story itself is very simple, it's very expository. But it becomes very interesting seeing her as the puppetmaster, as the one who is controlling him, and then at the same time we have to think about who is controlling the narrative and this experience for us, the audience."
This subject of control is what lies at the dark heart of the unusual artistic approach that Egoyan and video designer Tsang Kin-wah are taking with the opera. Control is central to the character of Chinese opera, notes Egoyan — the very specific gestures and vocal inflections, for example, that performers of traditional Chinese opera spend decades perfecting. And then there is the plot itself, a perfectly stage-managed sting in which the stakes are extraordinarily high, both for Diao Chan and for the empire of China.
"That calculation and the degree of manipulation is something that we're trying to address in this production," says Egoyan, who earned his filmmaking chops by taking risks with unusual and unorthodox indie fare (like Exotica, Academy Award-nominated The Sweet Hereafter, and 2009's erotic thriller Chloe). "We're trying to address this idea of sort of a mechanical process using shadows and old stagecraft with very new digital technology, which is being used in projected subtitles in English and Chinese characters that will also respond to the musical tone of the piece."
Although Egoyan may be best known as a filmmaker, Feng Yi Ting is by no means his first foray into opera. His initial venture was with Richard Strauss' Salomé in 1996 for the Canadian Opera Company. After that, he directed two 1998 world premieres: in April, a work Egoyan wrote himself, Elsewhereless, which received 30 performances across Canada, and later that year Gavin Bryars' Doctor Ox's Experiment for the English National Opera in London. Most recently, he was involved in the Canadian premiere of Wagner's daunting Die Walküre and is now in preparation for a production of Così fan tutte, a Mozart fan favorite.
"It's a form I love," Egoyan admits. "I have a very specific relationship with music in my films. In film, music is usually the last thing you add, and it's always this thrilling moment when you can hear someone reinterpret what you've done visually. But in opera, of course, you begin with that."
Every opera project he's been involved in, Egoyan says, has begun with the music. He says he was initially drawn to Feng Yi Ting by the score from Guo Wenjing, which premiered in an unstaged presentation in the Netherlands last year.
"The music is exceptional," he says. "It's so exciting to hear the music itself. I didn't really know this composer's work, so when I heard it I was just completely overwhelmed by it. It's so full of possibility."
But this production offers Egoyan an additional reward: the chance to mix it up with vastly different traditions and roll the dice with an unknown outcome, an opportunity not available to every director of every opera, but an essential part of the image that Spoleto Festival USA cultivates. The results of such artistic experiments are not always what the director (or audiences, or box office managers) expected or promised, but, succeed or fail, they set Spoleto apart from many of the other more hidebound performing arts festivals in the U.S. In this particular case, even Egoyan acknowledges that he can't be certain of the outcome. In the meantime, he's going to have as much fun as possible exploring the dichotomies and paradoxes to be found in Eastern and Western, old and new traditions.
"We're dealing with notions of modernity and tradition set against each other. You're going to see certain symbols and images which are very classically based, figurines and models and architectural aspects," he explains. "But that's going to be in direct conflict with other parts of the visual production. The alchemy of that is something I'm very excited about."
Festival regulars who've familiarized themselves with Chinese opera from Spoleto's many and regular dips into the form (The Peony Pavilion in 2004, for example) should prepare for the unexpected. Egoyan notes that projected video and even the supertitles themselves will play a significant role in the artistic presentation of Feng Yi Ting.
"I've done a lot of projection in my previous opera work, but it's always been very cued to the music, to the actual beats," he says. "This music doesn't lend itself to that sort of mechanical deployment of the projection. There are decisions that the singer will make on the spot, and that the conductor might make in a very intuitive way, and we just have to make sure that the technology responds to that. It should feel as though there's a degree of live interpretation happening there.
"Technically, it's a gamble," Egoyan says. "But it's the right sort of piece to do it with, because it's compact and it can accommodate that. If it's done properly, the music and the visual elements and the text and the vocal techniques will blend seamlessly. We'll see."