Does the music reflect that difference between east and west?
Bun-Ching Lam: There’s a subtle difference in musical style. The music shifts to a more “western” style as the opera progresses. At first Wenji sings in Chinese most of the time, but in the end she sings more in English.
Rinde Eckert: The instrumentation is quite eclectic. We have English horns and cello as well as a whole battery of Chinese percussion instruments. In the sonic world, it draws on [both Chinese and Western traditions].
Bun-Ching Lam: Particularly with Zhou Long, who is a Beijing opera performer, the way he sings is with a totally different vocabulary than a western performer. Wenji sings in between [east and west], she switches styles and languages.
Wenji is a bilingual project, bilingual in the sense that the creative team is bilingual, but also in the sense that the music is bilingual and Wenji herself is a bilingual, bicultural figure. What dimensions does working in two languages add to the performance?
Bun-Ching Lam: I insisted on a balance. I insisted on having Rinde as a director instead of a Chinese director. I wanted that western perspective and to see what he could bring from the other side.
How do you go about contextualizing the story of Wenji, placing it in a certain time period and also making it universal and contemporary? Do you have to balance those two things?
Rinde Eckert: Yes, you do have to balance. It’s reflected in the costuming, it’s reflected in the types of movement on stage. Zhou Long himself represents a type of anomaly because the movement is a classic Chinese form that goes back a long way. He represents this tradition, but he’s in the most modern dress on stage. In every element we have expressed these dichotomies. The old and new are available in everything on stage. Yet it should not have a sense of a kind of eclectic pastiche, but of a real aesthetic, which it does. I think we’re actually coming closer and closer to what Xu Ying has written down in the script. I started with notions that were farther removed from the script, but as I’ve been directing, I’ve come back to the script. Stage directions that I had ignored before I am returning to…. I think Xu Ying has anticipated that quite well. We have been moving in each other’s directions and as a result we’re coming to something with a great deal of artistic integrity. It doesn’t feel like we’ve just stuck a couple of things together.
Rinde Eckert: One thing Xu Ying and I share is a sense of theatrical integrity and I think ultimately I’ve discovered that we often both agree that this is really good despite our differences. I feel like we see the same thing. We both see theatrical integrity, me from my western perspective, Xu Ying from his Chinese perspective and in the same way we both find it touching or illuminating or amusing, or whatever it is. Every moment in this piece I can look at Bun-Ching and Xu Ying and ask, “are we all seeing what I’m seeing?” and if everyone is seeing the same thing, I feel like we’re really getting to something.