On the Westside East meets West

A scene from “Book of Mountains and Seas,” produced by Beth Morrison Projects. Photo by Steven Pisano

Music and vocal theater inspired by tales from ancient China

“Book of Mountains and Seas” at BroadStage

by Bondo Wyszpolski

Composer-librettist Huang Ruo. Photo by Wenjun Miakoda Liang

Composer and librettist Huang Ruo reached all the way back to China’s Qin dynasty in the fourth century B.C. and selected four mythical stories from “Book of Mountains and Seas.” He then created a score for 12 vocalists and two percussionists while collaborating with director, production designer, and puppetmaster Basil Twist to create an enchanting performance of choral theater that also includes half a dozen puppeteers.

While drawing from the past, Huang Ruo’s interpretation of the tales is clearly from a 21st century perspective. Even so, because of the setting, the choir that is more reminiscent of chanting by medieval monks, and the narration (partly in Mandarin and partly in a fabricated language to mimic or accompany the music), the work defies a contemporary feel.

The performance, which opened Wednesday at BroadStage in Santa Monica, and encores this Friday and Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, is roughly 80 minutes in length without an intermission. The vignettes seem to be about equal in length, the first one, “The Legend of Pangu,” is a creation myth in which Pangu rises from a cosmic egg, divides the world into its yin (female) and yang (male) components, and then creates all of the earthly elements from his dying, decaying body. Not only animals and plants, but sun and moon, wind and rain, and lastly (perhaps as a second thought) the human race. This piece starts slowly, the singers illuminated gradually, like the stars at dusk, only their faces aglow, and it ends without much fanfare. My companion actually fell asleep during this segment, that’s how lowkey it really is.

“The Spirit Bird” is about a princess who drowned while out at sea and is reincarnated as a bird, an angry bird, because now she’s out for revenge, to fill the ocean with twigs. We can meditate on the fact that sometimes the idea of seeking revenge is superfluous and perhaps meaningless. Perhaps we need to choose our battles carefully. The bird is depicted as a piece of white and red cloth on a pole, which is carried and waved side to side (it reminded me of a giant sunfish more than a bird). And the ocean was suggested by both an undulating sheet and the fluctuating lighting effect created by Ayumu “Poe” Saegusa.

A scene from “Book of Mountains and Seas,” produced by Beth Morrison Projects. Photo by Steven Pisano

“The Legend of Ten Suns” (and I’m not giving anything away by detailing how this ends) is another creation myth (and who came up with this is beyond me!) in which our world was once encircled by ten suns, taking turns to ensure that all would be well on the planet… That is, until they decided to all go out at the same time, the result of which was to scorch the hell out of every plant and animal and person on earth. Eventually the god of archery, Hou Yì, is called in and he methodically shoots out or shoots down nine of the ten. I doubt if the person who came up with this scenario was thinking of climate change, but it’s hard for us not to see it in that light.

I think I’ve mentioned that the chanting is mesmerizing (I kept thinking of Paul Hillier and also the work of Arvo Pärt), but the visuals are no less hypnotizing, the suns in this case being paper lanterns, mostly of a soft orange in tint (they will change colors), but also resembling the marriage of a dandelion and a pumpkin. The suns emerge from behind the stage set, one by one, and at first it’s possible to imagine that we’ll only get two or three to stand-in for all 10. But no, over the course of several long minutes they all appear, each puppeteer apparently bearing two of them on very long swaying poles. The suns are rather sedate at first, but they get a little more active and eventually even veer out towards the audience.

A scene from “Book of Mountains and Seas,” produced by Beth Morrison Projects. Photo by Steven Pisano

Meanwhile, and you’ll remember what I said about “The Legend of Pangu,” the percussion (performed by Erica Hou on one side of the stage and Yuri Inoo on the other) becomes more prominent. I should also point out, if you haven’t already guessed, that the composition takes place in shadowy darkness. The puppeteers are dressed in black, like the so-called black men of Kabuki, and as in that form of theater we’re not supposed to notice them. I’d only suggest that these puppeteers should have darkened their faces to make them less noticeable, never mind that this sounds somewhat politically incorrect.

There aren’t any subtitles, as in opera when it’s performed at the Dorothy Chandler, but occasionally a few lines appear behind the action to let us in on what’s taking place. Let me just suggest that it’s imperative that one read the program notes first, because having a brief guideline or narrative roadmap helps immensely. Also, from time to time, Chinese script appears as well, which apparently is taken from the text of “Book of Mountains and Seas.” It’s no big deal if you can’t read it… this is one show that gains from leaving in a little mystery.

The last vignette finally utilizes the puppeteers in that they raise and manipulate a giant figure for “Kuā Fù Chasing the Sun.” Kuā Fù is a giant whose body parts and head appear to have been assembled out of blocks of stone and tree trunks, the sort of figure who wouldn’t be out of place in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.”

A scene from “Book of Mountains and Seas,” produced by Beth Morrison Projects. Photo by Steven Pisano

At any rate, Kuā Fù’s obsession is to run after and catch the sun. All he manages to do is to tire himself out, occasionally lying down flat on his stomach to lap up entire rivers to assuage his thirst. None of these four vignettes resembles traditional Chinese opera (that is, if we’re thinking of, let’s say, Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine”), although in “Kuā Fù Chasing the Sun” the percussionists pick up the slack, as it were, and we do hear some of that harsh clanging that Chinese opera (and Kabuki, for that matter) seems to love.

The vocalists, Ars Nova Copenhagen, are splendid, sometimes singing solo, sometimes in small groups of two, three, four, and sometimes all together, the high voices and the lows smoothly joining with or gently sliding over one another.

Although “Book of Mountains and Seas” is partly being staged under the auspices of LA Opera, this is about as far as one can get from their current production of “La Traviata.” Verdi’s piece has more color than a carnival, while Huang Ruo’s has tints that resemble embers in a fireplace. No, what we have here is something that might recall, and enchant, those who saw “Dimanche” last year on the Broad stage, or perhaps Ping Chong’s production of “Kwaidan” that was presented a couple of decades ago in UCLA’s Freud Theatre. It’s a quiet, intimate work, not for everyone, but maybe for you. If so, hurry. Tickets are already scarce.

Book of Mountains and Seas is being performed Friday and Saturday evening at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Eli and Edythe Broad Stage at Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, 1310 Eleventh St, Santa Monica. Conducted by Miles Lallemant, produced by Beth Morrison Projects, and co-presented by LA Opera and BroadStage. Tickets, $169, $99, $59. Call (213) 972-8001 or visit laopera.org. ER

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