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Santa Fe Opera debuts ‘Dr. Sun Yat-sen’

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Tenor Joseph Dennis sings the role of Dr. Sun Yat-sen and soprano Corinne Winters is Soong Ching-ling in “Dr. Sun Yat-sen” at the Santa Fe Opera. (Courtesy of Ken Howard/The Santa Fe Opera)

Tenor Joseph Dennis sings the role of Dr. Sun Yat-sen and soprano Corinne Winters is Soong Ching-ling in “Dr. Sun Yat-sen” at the Santa Fe Opera. (Courtesy of Ken Howard/The Santa Fe Opera)

SANTA FE – Home to Italian tearjerkers and French froth, the Santa Fe Opera is transforming an epic slice of Chinese history into a universal love story.

The American premiere of “Dr. Sun Yat-sen” will debut at the Santa Fe Opera on Saturday, July 26.

The story of a revolutionary who devoted his life to overthrowing the Qing Dynasty, “Dr. Sun” blends Eastern, Western, folk and classical styles into a meditation on love for his wife, his friends, his family and his country, composer Huang Ruo said.

“Dr. Sun” premiered with Opera Hong Kong in 2011 with a Mandarin and Cantonese libretto. The Chinese-born Ruo used Sun’s personal life to elucidate the political story of the founding father of China. Soprano Corinne Winters will play Sun’s second wife, Ching-ling, in her Santa Fe debut. Former Santa Fe apprentice and tenor Joseph Dennis sings the title role.

“The message is universal – finding true love and fighting for what you believe,” the New York-based Ruo said.

The opera opens with Dr. Sun supporter (and Methodist minister) Charlie Soong hosting a gala in his home. Although he claims to be raising money for his church, the event is actually a fundraiser for Sun’s revolutionary cause.

When the emperor discovers the ruse, Sun flees to Japan in exile. While staying with a friend, he meets Charlie’s adult daughter Ching-ling, who is as emotionally invested in the revolution as he is.

The opera unfolds in a classic triangle. Sun’s first marriage was arranged, his foot-bound wife traditionally following behind him.

He falls in love with Ching-ling, vowing to marry her despite a 30-year age difference. The relationship shatters his friendship with Charlie.

The libretto follows Sun’s life across 20 years of turmoil. He overthrows the emperor with the help of Gen. Yuan Shi-kai and becomes the provisional president of the new republic.

But the general betrays him, seizing the presidency as he plots to become the new emperor. As Sun gathers support to overthrow Yuan, the general’s assassins attack his home. Ching-ling miscarries their baby during their escape.

“If nothing else makes you grow up, that makes you grow up,” Winters said. “My aria is about losing the baby.”

The American soprano learned Italian, French and German at Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory, but she never studied Chinese dialects.

“I didn’t really learn Mandarin, but I can pronounce Mandarin,” she said of the opera’s intensive rehearsals. “It is hard because there are so many sounds that aren’t even close to what we have. Certain sounds have a closed mouth and a curled tongue.”

Winters considers the character of Ching-ling the opera’s heartbeat.

“She’s not left in the background,” she said. “She helps make him the man he is.

“The challenges are conveying her youth and her depth,” she continued. “It’s hard to play someone with her gravitas and her youth. Sometimes portraying youth on stage can come across as flippant.”

The composer’s task was to smoothly integrate Eastern and Western music into a seamless sound of Chinese language.

“The Chinese language is very tonal and lyrical,” Ruo said. “It’s also very dramatic.”

The character-based cadence is quite staccato, he explained, with tiny breaks between the words. Ruo decided to draw out the sounds, bridging the gaps between the notes.

“That’s my magic,” Ruo said. “That’s my challenge. The way to do that is not to treat them as two different colors; I create a collage.”

The orchestra consists primarily of Western instruments, with a few Chinese strings and flutes woven into the passages for authenticity. Sensitive ears will notice a pipa (a lute-like instrument); a sheng (a bamboo mouth organ) and a dizi (a bamboo flute).

Winters compared the music to Philip Glass-meets-Puccini. It flows both lyrical and lush, then dips into sparseness.

“I can hear bits of what Puccini put in ‘Turandot’ and ‘Madame Butterfly,'” she said. “It doesn’t sound like something we haven’t heard before.”

Winters lives in Philadelphia, where she attended the Academy of Vocal Arts. She made her professional and Metropolitan Opera debut as Countess Ceprano in “Rigoletto.”

Her future plans include debuts at Covent Garden, the Washington National Opera and the Canadian Opera Company.

In writing “Dr. Sun,” Ruo envisioned much more than a Chinese opus.

“It’s a mixed cast,” he said. “There are singers who have never spoken Chinese before. In this sense, it is a revolution in opera; all these world cultures become equal.”

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