University prof. and composer Bright Sheng set out to tell the compelling story of a woman he had never met, a woman who nevertheless had an impact on the way his life turned out.
It is a story of love, sex, lust, betrayal, power and deceit, and it is sold out until the end of its run in the middle of August, making it the best selling opera for the Santa Fe Opera this season.
“It’s a surprise, a nice surprise. I didn’t expect that,” he said. “You can’t expect that to happen.”
“Madam Mao,” a full-length opera written by Sheng, has found a great deal of success since its premier at the Santa Fe Opera July 26.
Though writing the opera took just over a year from start to finish, Sheng said the story has been in the works much longer. He had been working through the story and various problems with how to represent it since an earlier trip to Moscow, where he had the idea for the opera the day Madame Mao died.
“It just came out, just flew out from my mind,” he said.
“She lived a life of 77 years – to reduce that into two hours of entertainment wasn’t easy,” he said. “You have to find a dramatic and compelling storyline.”
Sheng said he thinks people are attracted to his show because of a curiosity about the subject – the life of Madame Mao, who came to hold a high position of power during China’s communist rule after marrying ruler Mao Zedong.
The work is also significant to Sheng because Madame Mao and China’s Cultural Revolution, which took place from 1966-1976, had a large impact on his life.
He said Madame Mao’s story not only has all of the right ingredients for an opera, but that it also affected millions of Chinese people.
“She was responsible for me to become a musician in an indirect way,” he said, explaining that after junior high school at the age of 15, young people during the time were sent to the countryside to become farmers. “Everyone had to go, and it was for life, everyone had to go except for if one had any talent in performing arts,” he said.
Young people exhibiting skills in the performing arts were exempt, and instead participated in the entertainment business, he said, the “propaganda sector” which Madam Mao organized.
Sheng, who had studied piano, said up until that time it was not a likely career choice for him. He did not, however, want to be a farmer, so he picked the other option and auditioned. Consequently, he spent seven years composing, performing, and learning about Chinese folk music on the border of Tibet, and when the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao dead and Madame Mao arrested, he said “the only thing I knew was music.” So he became a musician.
He also teaches. The professor, who said he enjoys being around young people, values their honest opinions, and recognizes the importance of passing on knowledge and lessons he learned from his teachers to the next generation. He has been honored by the University with the title Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor.
“I love my students,” he said. “Sometimes I take my work to my lessons and show them to my students, to teach, to use as examples, to get their opinions. Sometimes I have a dilemma and my students will tell me what they like.”
Sheng admitted that he has received attention from national and international audiences for his recent opera, but said the attention does not change the way he lives his life.
He may have people flying in from Europe to see the opera and haven been invited to appear on PBS’ The News Hour with Jim Lehrer this past weekend, but Sheng said he just keeps doing what he likes to do.
“It doesn’t change me, I’m still what I am. I still have to write every note, show up at my classes, I care about my students – I still do the same thing,” he said.