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Madame Mao

Opera in two acts (2003)

Libretto by Colin Graham for an opera by Bright Sheng on the character of the late Madame Mao

Commissioned by Santa Fe Opera

Synopsis by Bright Sheng

Duration: 120 minutes

Cast (13), SATB chorus

Orchestra (2222/4331/timp,perc[4]/hp/str)





an opera in two acts

The story of Madame Mao (Jiang Ching) has all the intensity of a dramatic thriller but, in spite of its authentic history, it also has the more usual operatic dimensions of love, lust, repression and characters that are extreme in their emotions and actions.

The story depends on two elements: repression and revenge–one breeds the other. It tells how Jiang Ching changes from a naive young actress (who truly loved and idolized Mao and his communist ideals) to an evil driven and vengeful murderer. As her hopes die one after the other, each indignity she suffers from Mao and the Party serves to fan the revenge she extorts when, finally, her unrequited love turns into ill-willed, political retaliation against them all.

The opera presents a challenge to present convincingly the various events in (Madame Mao’s) life over the space of forty years as it moves fluidly from one event to another, despite leaps in real time–a complicated story in a short theater piece. The story line therefore has to be simple and clear while it must be understandable and emotionally engaging for the audience, whether or not they are familiar with recent Chinese history.

It is dramatically satisfying to divide the role into two singers– as the young, idealistic Jiang II (high soprano) interacts throughout the opera with her older, sinister and more cynical self, Jiang I (dramatic mezzo). This also assists in the fluidity of the passages of time. IN a way, Madame Mao is also a feminist who fights single-handedly in the midst of a powerful and male-dominated society. And it is ironic as Jiang struggles all her life to avoid the same fate as Zhizen, Mao’s first wife, who goes mad and is put away by Mao in the middle of Act II. Doubly ironic since Jiang was virtually insane by the time she was able to exact her revenge.


--- Bright Sheng

Critical Acclaim on Madam Mao




Cast of characters

Jiang Ching I (Madame Mao) Dramatic Mezzo-soprano

Jiang China II (Madame Mao in her 20s) High Lyric-soprano

also plays

Nora (in Act I)

also sings

In Chinese Opera scenes: Mu Guiying (in Act II)

ZiZheng, Mao's previous wife Full Lyric-soprano

also sings

An Actress (in Act I)

also sings

In Chinese Opera scenes: Yang Paifeng (in Act II)

Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Communist Party of China Verdi Baritone

The Actor (see below) High Tenor

also sings

In Chinese Opera scenes: Emperor Gao (in Act II)

Another man (see below)

The Accusers (8 soloists, 2 sopranos, 2 tenors, 2 baritones and 2 basses, double in many other parts, including The Committee and Victims in Act II. They also include Another Man and The Actress) Sometimes these appear as Madame Mao's accusers as at the Trial, sometimes as bitter memories of her past.

Chorus - minimum 32, equally divided

8 Dancers (4 men 4 women)

NOTE: In Act I the time goes backwards from the Death of Madame Mao towards her first meeting with Mao, via her trial, her time as a young actress and her existence as a chattel of men. In Act II the time goes forward from her first encounter with Mao to her death, via her sexual ascendancy over Mao, her revenge against her enemies in the Cultural Revolution, the death of Mao and her unsuccessful attempt to succeed him, and the fiasco of her trial.



Madame Mao

Act One

In the center of a very dark stage something hangs from the ceiling. The music suddenly blasts and we realize it is Madame Mao’s body and we are in her prison cell. She appears to one side: “Yes, I am she - hanging there in my cell - the wife of Mao Zedong, ruler of China.” She begins to tell her life story: a story that affected the lives of millions of Chinese people.

Instantaneous switch to her trial, Accusers and chorus enlist Jiang Ching's crimes against humanity, the State and Chairman Mao. Defiant, Jiang refuses to confess: "I am the wife of Mao Zedong, I loved my husband. If I am guilty, so are you and the Party!"

As the accusers and chorus incriminate her of trying to seize Mao's power at his death, the scene changes into Mao's bedroom at the Palace of South and Central Lakes when Jiang comes for her final appeal before Mao's death. Appearing humble, she asks him to allow her to finish his design when he is gone. But Mao condemns her for being her won worst enemy, only hungry for effect and applause. He clams if he allowed her to wear the crown, she would bring the curtain down on both of them and ruin his design.

During the argument, Jiang recalls her greatest role on stage when she played Nora in Ibson's A Doll's House in Shanghai. After Helmer (Actor) tells her that she does not understand the world, she claims "But I shall try, to find out who is right - the world or I".

The enormous applause turns into the Accusers' further denunciation of Jiang's greed for fame, her flaunts for promiscuity, for sex and the power of men. When they further condemn her for not worthy of a husband, the Dance of Life (waltz 1) is seen, each coupling representing a sexual partnership: Jiang is dancing with her first true love and husband, the Actor/Director (duet): " I am so fond of you, so very fond of you. Safe at last in your arms, a haven from the world." But soon the Actor, tired of Jiang (changes partners), offers the role of Nora in the movie to his new found lover, another actress. Jiang is heart-broken by his betrayal. As she confronts him, she is told that "the truth is that you can not act, and you will never succeed - not as an actress not as a woman."

In her desperate disillusion, Jiang laments her misfortune to be born a woman and betrayed by all men. She reminisces her childhood when her mother played the whore for the father who abused her and turned them out to starve. She remembers the lullaby her mother used to sing to her when she was five years old...."Sleep, my baby, and dream of stars, close your eyes to my pain..."

But Jiang refuses to suffer. She decides to take her life into her own hands and make herself again: "I feel a new wind blowing through my heart as China will also make herself again, uncorrupted and full of dreams." The march of Mao's troops (chorus) approaching is heard while Jiang decides that Mao is the man who reaches in to save China's soul and he shall be her light and dreams. Jiang determines to join Mao and his men: "Together we shall reach into China's soul! The world may say I am mad: I'll find out who is right, the world or I!" A stunning climax as a bright, bright light shines on and from Jiang Ching. On the last note, the troops halt before the instant blackout.

(Heaven's Gate - a Chinese Opera scene)

Emperor Gao Junbao (Actor) proclaims that he shall attack the Heaven's Gate to complete his kingdom and save the land when the sun is high, while Mu Guiying (Zhizen), the Warrior maiden proclaims that she shall defend her husband and live in bliss forever. Liu Jinding (Jiang II), another undefeated Warrior maiden comes forward and declares that she will fight for the Emperor and take him for her own when the stars foretell her love to the Emperor. During the battle, the two women and their warriors hurl themselves at each other while Gao attempts to separate the women in a three-some duel. During this he becomes attracted to Liu.

Liu and her forces defeat both Gao and Mu who rampages in madness when she sees the way Gao and Liu look at each other. She is finally pinned to the ground by the soldiers' spearpoint, and Liu and Gao proclaim that together they will storm the Heaven's Gate and restore the future of the world.

The scene's final pose frozen as Mao slowly approaches Jiang from the audience side on stage and begins to assist her to disrobe while the Accusers are watching. The chemistry sparks: "I need an extraordinary man/woman to arouse my soul." Mao tells her that although he is old enough to be her father, he is touched by a kind of love he has never known and he has passed his own wife on the stairs. Jiang tells him that she has found her soul mate and in his arms she feels her destiny washing away the waters of her past. Together, they fill each other with a passion that threatens to destroy. They make love.

The suspicious Zhizen suddenly appears with two armed guards. Panting with rage, flings herself on Jiang, hit her with one well-placed blow to the stomach. Mao gestures the guards no to interfere. Sadly, Zhizen asks Mao what kind of man, hero-husband and communist he is: "I saved your live so many time and now you ruin mine?" Mao scolds Zhizen and threatens to have her put away if she does not stop ranting. In desperation, Zhizen warns Jiang that Mao will cough Jiang up and spit her out like all the other women he has loved. Outraged, Mao orders the guards to drag Zhizen out and the two reprise their former romantic mood: "Your two dark eyes are lakes of crystal - why does a river seek the ocean/why do the planets turn around the sun?"


Act Two

The Committee (Accusers) confronts Mao for his behavior: "It is out the question! How can you abandon your comrade-in-arms wife for an actress from the gutter? An ambitious woman is a curse on the Party and our nation." Mao states that Jiang brings him a kind of love that will bind them together and insists to merry Jiang. He further threatens that he cannot command the revolution without her in his life.

With this ultimatum, the Committee has to concede while deeply suspicious. They tell Mao that for the sake of the Party, Jiang must refrain from political action and never appear in public as his wife. Mao accepts the arrangement. Jiang angrily confronts Mao. Mao apologetically reaches for her hand: "For the sake of the party, be patient - I promise their decision will be reversed all in good time."

The Committee members become Accusers and mocks Jiang never stopped trying to fight and believed Mao's promises. The Dance of Life (waltz 2) is seen again. Jiang expects to dance with Mao but he ditches her to dance with (and undress) each of the Four Beauties (Female Dancers as young Secretaries, Nurses, etc.), singing "I am so fond of you, safe at last in your arms." Jiang's attempts to reclaim him are prevented by his Guards (4 male dancers). Frustrated, Jiang scorns Mao that he has broken every promise he has made, and one day his words are like honey while another day it tastes of bile. Annoyed, Mao repeated the same sentence he said to Zhizen years ago: "Stop ranting or I'll have you put away." Realizing that she has fell into the same fate as Zhizen, Jiang retreats meekly: "You are my teacher and I am your student."

The dance music rises to a climax as Jiang moves forward to reveal the full dark transformation of her soul. (Orchestral Interlude)

Jiang Ching's Revenge

(Heaven's Gate - Chinese Opera scene 2)

While the chorus hails to the Emperor and his victory, Emperor Gao (Actor) proclaims that, after he has saved his land from all perversity, new enemies within his court is rising to pull him down again. And here he joins his power and gives his sword to his beloved Liu (Jiang II): "there is no sharper sword than this one to rid me of my enemies."

Jiang (Jiang I) breaks from her trance and leaps on to the stage, interrupting proceedings while Soldiers become Red Guards. She is now directing the Cultural Revolution and tells us that the Dragon may have stumbled but never shall he fall. In the shadows of disgrace, he plots to downfall of his enemies and sends her out to breathe his fire. And for thirty years she has waited for this day while buried her resentment and shame in the sand. During Red Guards' shouting of "Ten thousand years to the Cultural Revolution!", Jiang declares that "the seeds of hatred, like a dragon's teeth, will grow into a scarlet horde - an army of unfeeling steel."

Jiang presides over the punishment of her Victims as they are dragged by Red Guards to be paraded publicly and ridiculed with dunces' caps on their heads, placards on their chests and long, thick red cords around their necks by which the Red Guards drag them in and throw them down at the feet of their judges. Jiang grabs the scarlet cord and symbolically dispatches each and every one of her enemies as they scream for mercy––all the Committee members, the Actress, the Actor, etc. Each falling victim cries out in an agonized voice accompanied by cries of delight of the Red Guards: "Long Live Jiang Ching! Long Live Chairman Mao!"

A macabre change of light and atmosphere as the dead bodies of the Victims slowly raise their heads like ghosts, their bloodshot eyes fixed on Jiang Ching: "You feasted on our blood and usurping all Chairman Mao's power. You are an evil and a shameless witch - a demon risen from a million bones. The chorus chants "White Bone Demon! White Bone Demon!" With an imperious, dangerous gesture, Jiang shuts them up: "Everything I did, Mao told me to - I was his dog - if he said 'Bite!', I bit!"

Mao, old and ill, lies on his bed. His mind despairs as his body rots away, stinking with the failure of his dreams. He laments how easily success turns sour and all his yesterdays return to haunt him. He moans while he is dying, Jiang struts her hour upon the stage, imaging she can outwit them all. He concludes she is a tale full of sound and fury and must be finished before she ruins him.

Jiang appears to make her final appeal: "For forty years I have endured the shame. Am I not the only one who will cause your name to ring a thousand years when you are gone?" Mao tells her that he has told the Party that she is finished and they want no more of her. Realizing his final betrayal, Jiang, white with rage, plays Nora to the hilt: "And now I know what I must do, for now I know you are not the man to give me what I need. For thirty years I have waited for this chance!" Zhizen's laugh is heard and it seems to Jiang that it is Mao who laughs. She presses a pillow to his face and holds it there as he jerks his way into death. Jiang bursts into her mother's Lullaby: "Dream, my baby of silver stars...."

The music, now very beautiful and lyrical and identifying more with the young Jiang Ching than her older self, continues to build towards the end of the opera, signifying a new era of China, while the Accusers and chorus slowly come into view as they are chanting "White bone demon! etc." This brings back the end of the trial with Jiang's defiance: "I am the wife of Mao Zedong. If I am guilty, so are you and the Party!" She is sentenced to death.

Jiang is alone in her prison cell: "Who said I could not act? This was my greatest role and I played it to the end - And, in the end, I was the one who laughed... So we'll see who is right, the world of I." She approaches the rope as the chorus welcomes the down of China's new era after Mao.


End of Opera




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