If you believe that Heaven and Earth coexist, imagine them connected by something that’s not only visible but readily explored by simply traveling down a river. As a 4,000-year-old Chinese legend would have it, the existence of the Silver River allows both realms to unite.

What happens when Heaven and Earth collide? “The Silver River,” named after the Chinese word for “Milky Way,” attempts to answer this question through a musical folktale about forbidden love between a mortal and an immortal – a theme that spans both Easter and Western literature.

The Power Center is set to open its doors to this singularly resplendent production for the first time in five years.

The play begins with the Jade Emperor, lord of Heaven, discovering his immortal daughter’s shameful romance with a nameless cowherd. He transforms the Silver River into an impenetrable barrier between the two worlds, creating a complete darkness over both lands.

In a Brown Bag Lecture at the Institute for Humanities, David H. Hwang explored the striking contrast of what the Silver River once was and how it has transformed, a problem he called “the challenge to create something on two levels.”

Although the play is based on an ancient legend, its theme of forbidden love is timeless – and, of course, always relevant. A love’s survival in a violent and chaotic world transcends both time and cultures alike, and “The Silver River” hopes to achieve these qualities.

Hwang, internationally recognized for both his Tony Award-winning play “M. Butterfly” and his work on Disney’s “Aida,” brings a uniquely Asian American perspective to contemporary playwriting, with a diverse repertoire concerned with issues involving culture, race and gender in modern society.

The production’s composer is the experienced music Prof. Bright Sheng.

After studying with composer Leonard Bernstein, Sheng worked as an artistic advisor to cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s “Silk Road Project” and extensively with the Seattle Symphony, the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

“The most important thing, we felt, was that the music should sound incidental,” Sheng said, referring to “Silver River’s” blend of contemporary Western opera and Chinese folk music.

“There was no need for it to be complicated.”

One featured instrument is the Chinese lute, called a “pipa.” The Jade Emperor’s role is exclusively sung in Chinese, whereas the rest of the cast sings in English. All of these elements contribute to the imaginative beauty and dreamlike quality of the mythical love story.

Hwang intended for the legendary characters to feel real.

“Any time you look at gods and goddesses in myths they are extensions of human behavior. My tendency is to humanize them more and bring out those qualities in a way that allows the audience to be brought into the mythical world,” Hwang said.

Although this world is understandably exaggerated, the overall piece doesn’t become a fantasy – nor does it forget about the importance of creating a tangible (and believable) reality.

Whether this world refers to Heaven or Earth, the audience can safely assume they will be invited by the sights and sounds of “The Silver River” into both.

The Silver River

Today and Saturday at 8 p.m.

At the Power Center


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