JIANG CHING I, Madame Mao: Dramatic Mezzo-Soprano
JIANG CHINA II, Madame Mao in her 20s,: High Soprano
NORA (in Act 1)
In Chinese Opera scenes: MU GUIYING (in Act II)
ZHI ZHEN, Mao's previous wife: Full Lyric Soprano
AN ACTRESS (in Act 1)
In Chinese Opera scenes: YANG PAIFENG (in Act II)
MAO ZEDONG, Chairman of the Communist Party of China: Verdi Baritone
THE ACTOR (see below): High Tenor
In Chinese Opera scenes: EMPEROR GAO (in Act II)
ANOTHER MAN (see below)
The Accusers (8 soloists: 2 sopranos, 2 tenors, 2 baritones and 2 basses, double in many other parts, including The Committee and Victims in Act 11. They also include Another Man and The Actress) Sometimes these appear as Madame Mao's accusers as at the Trial, sometimes as bitter memories of her past.
SATB Chorus (minimum 32)
8 Dancers (4 men 4 women)
As the corpse of Jiang Qing, or Madame Mao, swings in the cell where she has hanged herself, we journey retrospectively through the events of a life that came to this undignified end. Rejected by her father when she was a child, Jiang Qing sees a chance to prove herself when Mao Zedong, leader of the Communist Revolutionaries, throws his wife into an asylum and takes a fancy to her. As Mao’s policies fail and he descends into a life of debauchery, Jiang Qing takes control, using the brutality of the Cultural Revolution to take revenge on those that she feels have betrayed her. In the end, Mao also rejects her and she is sent to prison where she takes her own life, in the belief that posterity will eventually vindicate her name.
Jiang Ching, the wife of Mao Zedong, exists today in China only in legend. She lives on today in Bright Sheng's MADAME MAO, commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera. Sheng and librettist Colin Graham present their anti-heroine as at once master and victim of her fate.
To tell such an eventful life story in a mere two hours, Sheng and Graham hit upon the idea of having on stage two Jiang Chings: a lyric coloratura plays the young woman, while a gritty, mature mezzo looks back on her life from her prison cell. Telling the story both forward and backward in this way works well. The fusion of Chinese and Western music styles that is this composer's trademark succeeds well here. There is none of the tinkling bells and clanging cymbals of Western faux-chinoiserie: Sheng uses a large all-Western orchestra with an immense percussion battery to evoke oriental sounds, while the focus on the upper range of the singers' voices suggests Chinese opera.
Sheng and Graham have created a passionate and absorbing work that deserves wide-spread attention.
Wes Blomster, Andante.com
MADAME MAO is powerful music-theater. Covering a crucial period of modern revolutionary history, it expertly employs styles from the politically oriented theater of the 20th century. As conducted by John Fiore, Sheng's score called Shostakovich to mind, with its immense percussive climaxes and hard-driving rhythms, well-suited to representing the rise of despots and the mob-rule that enthrones and deposes dictators. The spectacle of Colin Graham's production complemented the uproar from the pit. Sequences at the Peking Opera were thrillingly executed, and scenes of trial and revolution, masterfully staged, had an impact that recalled Meyerhold and Brecht.
Simon Williams, Opera News
Bright Sheng's MADAME MAO is a taut, brilliantly constructed drama, narrated in flashback about the irresistible rise of the beautiful young Peking Opera actress Jiang Ching, who caught the roving eye of Mao Zedong, became China's powerful First Lady and unleashed pandemonium in the so-called Cultural Revolution. Sheng's librettist, Colin Graham, encapsulated this narrative in a sequence of short filmic scenes which 'speak' directly to the audience in lucid dialogue and two fast-moving acts.
The drama packed a powerful punch thanks to Graham's brilliantly focused direction in Neil Patel's clean, spare settings, which cleverly evoked the utilitarian Chinese austerity into which the two Peking Opera interludes erupted in dazzling blaze of colorful costumes and dance. Sheng's synthesis of Shostakovich, Stravinsky and Ravel with Chinese idioms is rich and beguiling - his score is as action-packed and varied in mood as Graham's libretto and dazzlingly orchestrated. John Fiore conducted with conviction and panache. This is a musically and dramatically eventful opera.
Hugh Canning, Opera
The subject is ready-made for Bright Sheng's distinctive musical style, which mixes Chinese elements into an essentially western idiom that speaks clearly to an audience. MADAME MAO demonstrates that consideration for his audience also characterizes Sheng's approach to musical theatre.
Sheng and librettist Colin Graham have created a multifaceted protagonist and they put her through the kind of stormy confrontations that opera-goers thrive on. In an inspired decision, the young Jiang Ching is sung by a high soprano and the elder one by a mezzo. The young Jiang Ching almost wins one's sympathy when her acting aspirations founder and she sets her sights on Mao. Her reaction is fierce, especially in a mass execution scene in which she personally guns down those who crossed her. Here Sheng's music is wildly frenetic, the embodiment of fanaticism run amok. The angry, hyper-rhythmic, massed accusations at Jiang Ching's trial after she loses power are also vivid. But in a love duet for Jiang Ching and Mao, and indeed, in arresting duets for the two Jiang Chings, Sheng proves to be a beguiling melodist.
Also admirable is his recognition of the value of the divertissement: each act has a plot-related ballroom scene, with waltzes reminiscent of those in Prokofiev's WAR AND PEACE, as well as a scene from a Chinese opera in full pageantry. The conductor, John Fiore, and Santa Fe's orchestra and chorus realized the score splendidly, and Graham's staging brought out all of the drama.
George Loomis, Financial Times (London)