by Kevin T McEneaney
There is a crisis in this country concerning the arts: most people want stories, drama, and poetry to be realistic, aligned with truthful portrayal of life. Such perception strips the arts of essential tools: Allegory, Parable, Metaphor, Irony. The same might be said of religion where people no longer understand the morality of fable or myth. Since the banal is fundamentally realistic, it has become triumphant.
Advice: look to off-beat venues where vital art might be happening. For example, the new Chinese opera Painted Skin by Hao Weiya, based upon a 1740 short story by Pu Songling, which resembles vaguely (in sensibility) the serious, ripping Gothic thriller The Monk (1796) by Matthew Lewis. The short story and opera offer a powerful Allegory about aspiring to be what you are not. Hao Weiya is noted for his realistic opera A Village Teacher (2009). (The Gothic genre existed in China for nearly a millennium before the English imported that genre through Walpole, Radcliffe, etc.).
As part of Bard College’s China Now Festival, this one-day production at Hudson Hall (this past Thursday night) by Artistic Director Michael Hofmann with Jindong Cai energetically conducting the Bard Chinese Ensemble. The Ensemble featured outstanding performance on Sheng and Guanzi by Yazhi Guo (who can be heard on YouTube) and Tong Kong on Dizi (five differently pitched flutes). The Percussion team of Esteban Ganem, Paul Chambers, and Yining Zhu were thunderously awesome at climactic moments.
The performance was in Chinese with overhead superscript translations. The lead actress came down with Covid; Michelle Yang as Demon Gui-yan took over the lead role with merely two days of rehearsal, delivering an eerie Otherworldly sound-performance as the villain-demon who has a painted face and skin that belies, disguises, her demonic status. Mezzo-soprano Kristin Gornstein as Professor Wang sang with committed ardor the scholar-husband role; Soprano Holly Flack ably portrayed the distraught and eloquent housewife. This was a thrilling trio!
The scheming, polite, yet fierce demon attempts to steal the scholar husband’s heart because she is weary, alienated at being a restless demon; she wants to experience the sensual life of a human. This is the perennial story of the successful professor contentedly married, discovering an attractive pupil mistress desperate to seduce her teacher, yet here it is heightened into cosmological archetype with ironic perspectives. In the end everyone is embarrassed and repentant for their transgressions. The operatic monologues by the three characters were stunning, as well as the stylized gesture-ballet inherent in Chinese opera.
The appeal of the opera attracts all classes, even Buddhist intellectuals. There is no lag in the supernatural Gothic plot which provokes thoughtful, thrilling meditation. Umbrellas are a staple of Chinese life and an umbrella in this opera was nearly a character. Director Hofmann was amazingly inventive with digitally cast backdrops by Sage Carter that enhanced mood or action. Costumes and sets were minimalist with emotional impact.
This production should have a longer life beyond a single night at Hudson Hall! The audience was ecstatic, demanding seven bows!
P.S. I have just been informed that Painted Skin will run tomorrow evening at the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center.