This article by Jeffrey Palmer was published in Australian music magazine CutCommon on 6 March 2019. To see the article in full, click here.
Upon entering the dimly lit Underground Theatre of the Abrons Arts Center on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the audience members who had drifted in to see The Living Dying Opera were greeted with the booming question, “What is opera?”. American electronic composer and performer Hwarg (Howie Kenty), donning a tuxedo, was already at his station onstage behind laptop and mixing board causing this inquisitive cacophony of questioning voices to waft from the large speakers. While at first making everyone laugh nervously, giggles soon shifted to audience members posing this same question to each other.
As the room was plunged into complete darkness, voices gave way to a synthesized organ playing the opening strains of the famous aria Ombra Mai Fu from Handel’s 1738 opera Serse. There was Chinese countertenor Ju-eh (Juecheng Chen), dressed in a white Western shirt and traditional black Hanfu skirt, basking in the spotlight and descending the concrete staircase for what he would later in the event describe as “The Descent of the Goddess”. Upon finishing the aria, Ju-eh immediately entered into a monologue, first praising his own success as a singer, then questioning it. This led to a series of vignettes, beautifully enhanced by the masterful work of French lighting designer François-Thibaut Pencenat, that gave a very intimate look into the mind of a young man trying to make it as an opera star today. From dragging audience members onstage and directing them to behave in certain ways, to soliloquising about singing naked in the bathroom as a teenager, to leading everyone in a guided meditation, the audience was shown different sides of the singer’s complex, fierce, and sometimes fragile persona. By far, one of the most moving scenes in the piece was when, standing back-to-back with Ju-eh, Hwarg read aloud several rejection letters from various music conservatories and programs that Ju-eh had received while Ju-eh himself sang the devastating In Darkness Let Me Dwell by English Renaissance composer John Dowland.
The Living Dying Opera artfully sums up the great paradox that many classical singers face today: they have dedicated their entire lives to mastering an art form that the world largely considers to be dying, while routinely submitting themselves to rejections from those mighty few tasked with preserving that same art form. Yet, through it all, they retain a sense of determination, and often spiritual vocation, knowing that to be a singer is why they were born.
Questions of identity around being Chinese while studying in the West, and not being accepted by schoolmates or others in the classical world, were expertly woven into the piece. Focus was also given to the mysterious role that countertenors play in classical music today.
Ju-eh and Hwarg have created a uniquely 21st Century operatic experience that pushes boundaries while getting to the core of what opera is all about. The flexibility and crystalline qualities of Ju-eh’s voice, Hwarg’s stark and sometimes jarring electronic accompaniment, and the vast amounts of room for improvisation make this opera quite accessible to a contemporary audience, just as 17th and 18th Century operas strived to be in their own days. Thanks to these two young artists and others like them, perhaps our world will be reminded that opera is nothing more than an honest expression of the joy and suffering of the human condition in the highest artistic form of its age. Therefore, opera never really dies, but rather lives on in new incarnations.