Opera Warhorses

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Review: Santa Fe Opera Shows its Mettle in Mounting Huang Ruo’s “Doctor Sun Yat-Sen” – July 30, 2014

July 31st, 2014

Santa Fe Opera’s new production of Huang Ruo’s 2011 opera “Doctor Sun Yat-Sen” demonstrated the depth of the artistic resources that the company commands.

The opera’s libretto is written in the Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese dialects. The opera was considerably recomposed with new orchestration designed for the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra that integrated several traditional Chinese instruments.

[Chinese composer Huang Ruo; image from the Santa Fe Opera.]


The original plan was to mix established American and Chinese opera singers, supplemented with Santa Fe Opera Apprentice artists (presumably inexperienced in Mandarin and Cantonese), singing smaller roles and covering all the principal roles.

To a large extent the plan worked. Maryland soprano Corinne Winters, in her Santa Fe Opera debut, sang the lead female role of Soong Ching-ling with distinction. Pennsylvania mezzo-soprano MaryAnn McCormick sang the seconda donna role of Ni Gui-zhen.

Two Chinese artists experienced in singing traditional European opera were secured. Basso Gong Dong-Jian and baritone Chen Ye Yuan were respectively Charlie Soong, father of Ching-ling, and Mr Umeya, the family friend who provided refuge in Japan for Sun Yat-Sen during a period of exile.

Unexpectedly, Warren Mok, the tenor who created the title role at its premiere in Hong Kong’s Grand Theater, withdrew on short notice, placing an extraordinary burden on the shoulders of his cover, Texas tenor Joseph Dennis.

[Below: Doctor Sun Yat-Sen (Joseph Dennis. left) and Ching-ling (Corinne Winters, right) consider their future; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


That Dennis pulled off his assignment with aplomb was a major victory for the 55 year investment of this company in its Apprentice Artist program.

The capacity of the program to replace a key cast member with his designated cover only a few days before the production’s premiere indicates the depth of talent among the pool of opera singers from which Santa Fe Opera young artists program recruits each season’s Apprentices.

[Below: Doctor Sun Yat-Sen (Joseph Dennis, front left) and his wife Ching-ling (Corinne Winters, front right) stand before a large statue of himself; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


The principal strength of the opera is the effective orchestral writing of Huang Ruo, whose brilliant orchestral interludes show promise.

Less successful is the libretto of Candace Mui-ngam Chong. The storyline consisted of  selected personal details of the family relationships of these outsized historical personages – Sun Yat-sen and Ching-ling – from early 20th century Chinese history.

The opera was at times absorbing, such as the expression of loneliness of Dr Sun’s first wife Lu Mu-zhen (sympathetically played by another Apprentice Artist, New York soprano Rebecca Witty) through a traditional arranged marriage.

But at other times the long legato lines through which the principal characters express their current thoughts about Dr Sun’s revolutionary ideals, lack the melodramatic urgency that so many succcessful operas possess.

[Below: Charlie Soong (Gong Dong-Jian, left) and his wife, Ni Gui-zhen (MaryAnn McCormick, right) consider their level of support for a Chinese revolution; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Events do intrude on the personal stories, and one gets brief moments in which revolutionary fervor, political betrayal or authoritarian repression take center stage.

These are the opera’s most effective moments, along with the ballet sequences, based on Chinese dance forms, brilliantly choreographed by Sean Curran.

A co-production with the Vancouver Opera, “Doctor Sun Yat-Sen” was staged by James Robinson, with scene designs by Allen Moyer. James Schuette designed the costumes, Christopher Aierlind the lighting design.

Impressively conducting the orchestra with its fusion of Western and Chinese instruments, was Carolyn Kuan, herself from Taiwan.


I recommend this opera for the adventuresome, who would wish to see the first effort of a promising young composer, and who appreciate the resources that Santa Fe Opera can muster for a complex musical piece.


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