If creating a sympathetic portrait of a tyrant is difficult, creating one of a tyrant who's personally caused you and your country enormous misery would seem almost impossible. Yet that's exactly what composer Bright Sheng has accomplished with his new opera Madame Mao, which recently had its world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera (SFO).
Madame Mao tells the story of Jiang Ching, the ruthless wife of Mao Zedong and one of the masterminds of China's notorious Cultural Revolution. After Mao died, Jiang Ching was imprisoned for betraying the communist state. She hanged herself in 1991. Bright Sheng was 10 years old at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, and he was directly affected by Jiang's stifling and horrendous policies.
He channeled his complex emotions from that time into this incredible opera. Beautifully structured with soprano Anna Christy playing the young Jiang and mezzo-soprano Robynne Redmon playing the elder Jiang, some of the best music in Madame Mao occurs when the two women sing duets with each other.
As Jiang evolves from a gorgeous young actress betrayed by the men around her into a revolutionary and finally into Mao's lover and wife, you can almost sympathize with her ambition to take control of her life and the world around her. That sympathy ends abruptly, of course, as soon as the killing starts, and Jiang is revealed to be little more than a beautiful monster—or, as her enemies called her, a "white-boned demon."
Madame Mao revolves around two major themes. The first and most obvious is lifted directly from Shakespeare's Macbeth. It involves a detailed, emotional and political exploration of the corrupting influence of power.
The second theme is just as interesting. Throughout the opera, Sheng repeatedly illustrates the many intricate ways in which art and life intersect. Jiang's early role as Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House dements everything she does later in life, as do her starring roles in Chinese operas. Jiang might have been a second-rate actress within the confines of the theater, but on the vast world stage she found her ideal role and nailed it.
Madame Mao's greatest weakness is Colin Graham's libretto, which is chock full of hackneyed clichés and trite dialog. It's a tribute to Bright Sheng's music and vision that Madame Mao transcends this weakness. The highly percussive music, blending traditional Asian and Western musical styles, is awesome and beautiful from start to finish.
The elaborate set consisting of squares within squares perfectly symbolizes the confinement Jiang feels as an aspiring actress, as Mao's lover and finally as a condemned prisoner whose dreams of power are crushed under the boot heel of history. In the end, Madame Mao manages to paint as sympathetic a portrait as possible of this mass murderer. It's sympathetic enough, at least, to make this opera substantially more than just a brilliant musical diatribe against one of the foulest genocidal maniacs of the 20th century.