Chicago Opera Theater and Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival Team to Bring Audiences the Midwest Premiere of Huan Ruo’s vibrant environmentalist work, Book of Mountains and Seas
For most, opera offers a world all its own. Likewise, the source material from which opera is born can seem to encapsulate a universe of possibilities. For fans of new operatic works, however, the subject matter from which composers draw inspiration is often entirely modern.
Leave it to Chicago’s foremost producer of new and reimagined opera to find new work that combines new world sentiment and old world themes all in one. This winter, Chicago Opera Theater (COT)—in their 50th Anniversary seaon—is presenting the Midwest premiere of Huang Ruo’s environmentalist opera, Book of Mountains and Seas. The innovative production, presented in partnership with the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival and produced by Beth Morrison Projects, will present a feast for both eyes and ears this winter when it unveils a haunting score framed around Chinese folk music against a backdrop of stunning, larger-than-life puppets designed by the opera’s director, world-renowned puppeteer Basil Twist.
The work, which incorporates two percussionists, is scored for twelve singers, in this case the acclaimed Danish-based vocal ensmble, ARS NOVA Copenhagen, which specializes in renaissance polyphonic choral music and new vocal works.
Book of Mountains and Seas is inspired by the ancient compilation of Chinese myths and legends of the same title – 山海經 (Shanhai jing)- first written down during the Qin Dynasty in the 4th Century BC. Throughout the centuries, these classic tales have been told over and over again, becoming part of Chinese written and oral history. The opera Book of Mountains and Seas is a contemporary retelling of four of these well-known stories that brings into focus our modern-day relationship with the natural world. They also underscore the relevance of the ancient wisdom found in the original tales during a time of overlapping environmental crises of 21st century society. Composer and librettist Huang Ruo’s vibrant and inventive score, which draws inspiration from Chinese folk music alongside other musical idioms, and the unique libretto featuring a combination of Chinese and an invented language, conjure a sense of respect and awe for the environment while challenging audiences to be good stewards of the natural resources we have been given.
Lauded by The New Yorker as “one of the world’s leading young composers,” Huang Ruo’s vibrant and eclectic musical voice draws equal inspiration from Chinese ancient and folk music, Western avant-garde, experimental, noise, natural and processed sound, rock, and jazz. As a member of the new generation of Chinese composers, his goal is not just to mix both Western and Eastern elements, but also to create a seamless, organic integration. Huang Ruo’s diverse compositional works span from orchestra, chamber music, opera, theater, and dance, to cross-genre, sound installation, multi-media, experimental improvisation, folk rock, and film. Jis education expanded from Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky, and Lutoslawski, to include the Beatles, rock and roll, heavy metal, and jazz. Huang Ruo was able to absorb all of these newly allowed Western influences equally.
This production will serve as just another notch on COT’s belt of bringing new and innovative productions to Chicagoans, both invigorating interest in and stirring devotion for operatic music.
“Over the centuries, the stories that make up the Book of Mountains and Seas have become part of Chinese written and oral history. They have been told and reimagined through the voices of many artists,” said COT Edlis Neeson General Director Lawren ce Edelsen. “Huang Ruo and Basil Twist’s perspective on these timeless tales combines a haunting, evocative score with visually stunning puppetry – juxtaposing our relationship with the natural world today to these beautiful and deeply moving ancient stories of creation and destruction. COT is thrilled to be partnering with the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival and Beth Morrison Projects to bring this truly unique production that challenges audiences to see the world in a new way to Chicago audiences for the first time.”
COT’s visual collaboration brings fresh light to a name familiar to Chicago arts and culture audiences, Basil Twist.
A third-generation puppeteer, Twisthas significantly contributed to the art of puppetry since 1998, and is known worldwide for creating original abstract adult puppet works focused on their integration with music. His famous work Symphonie Fantastique, which takes place in a tank of water, is performed to the symphony of the same name and a new film version was screened as part of the 2023 Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. Among a host of high profile projects, Twist’s puppets are represented in Christopher Wheeldon’s sprawling production, The Nutcracker for The Joffrey Ballet.
Also on the creative team for this production is conductor Miles Lallemant and lighting designer Poe Saegusa.
Book of Mountains and Seas was commissioned by Beth Morrison Projects, Ars Nova Copenhagen, Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech, Toronto Soundstreams, Koorbiennale, Hong Kong New Vision Arts Festival, and Linda & Stuart Nelson. It was originally produced by Beth Morrison Projects, Ars Nova Copenhagen, Internationale Koorbiennale and Toronto Soundstreams. The tour is produced by Beth Morrison Projects.
Book of Mountains and Seas will be performed Friday, January 26 and Saturday, January 27 at 7:30 PM and Sunday, January 28 at 3:00 PM at the Studebaker Theater in the Fine Arts Building, 410 S Michigan Ave. For tickets, which start at $45, visit chicagooperatheater.org.