OAKLAND, Calif. — When Sorrow Turns to Joy — Songlines: The Spiritual Tributary of Paul Robeson and Mei Lanfang is a new musical-theatrical work by pianist Jon Jang and flutist James Newton that is inspired by two of the 20th century's great singers.
The piece, which features a jazz band, two singers and three members of the Beijing Opera, premieres on Thursday (June 1) and repeats Friday and Saturday at the Zellerbach Playhouse on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. Jang, Newton and their cast also will perform the piece at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis on June 8 and 10.
"If Paul Robeson and Mei Lanfang were alive today, they might be working on this together," Jang said. "They were early examples of multicultural artists."
Last weekend, Newton and Jang were at the Oakland Asian Community Center on what should be a day off, working out the details of When Sorrow Turns to Joy.
"We're now at the point where art is really made," Newton, 47, said. "It's the final moment to where no matter how much you've worked on it, this is going to take the maximum amount of concentration and focus to put the absolute finesse on the work."
Chinese-American Jang, 45, an outspoken force in the jazz and new-music scene, has a reputation for bringing global musical influences into his compositions and playing. His 1997 album, Island: The Immigrant Suite No. 1, contains the song "Diaspora Tale No. 1 (For My Parents)" (RealAudio excerpt). African-American Newton, in turn, is the leading improvising flutist of his generation. The two have worked together extensively, first performing together at anti-apartheid benefit concerts in the mid-'80s.
Picture Worth A Thousand Words
Jang first got the idea to create When Sorrow Turns to Joy when he saw a 1935 photograph of Robeson and Mei Lanfang in London. The pianist discovered the photo while doing research for his score for the production of Maxine Hong Kingston's "Woman Warrior."
"The picture is so powerful. You see two very dignified, very noble men, who had very strong political beliefs," Newton said.
The singers led parallel lives. Robeson was born in 1898 and died in 1976, Mei Lanfang lived from 1894–1961.
"Mei Lanfang was the greatest innovator, the most important artist of Beijing Opera in the 20th Century," Newton said. "He was the first person to bring women into Beijing Opera. Women were not allowed to be a part of the stage before that because of feudalism.
"He was also the first person to take Beijing Opera and tour all over the world and was interested in a number of other vocal techniques," Newton added. "Mei Lanfang also studied African vocal approaches and Italian Bel Canto."
Robeson possessed one of history's great baritones and was a fine actor who appeared in 11 Hollywood films, including The Emperor Jones and Body and Soul. He was an advocate of civil rights, equality and world peace.
"Paul Robeson studied Chinese at the School of Oriental-African Languages in London," Jang said. "That's where he and Mei Lanfang met in 1935.
"In all the articles we've read about Paul Robeson, he's always spoke about the kinship between Chinese and African cultures — not only the music and the languages, but also the world view," Jang said.
Inspirational Trips To South Africa
In August of 1994, Jang received a grant to study with the Beijing Opera.
"Then a month later, James Newton and I were invited to perform in South Africa, four and a half months after the elections to end apartheid," he said. "It was very inspirational for us to visit Nelson Mandela's home. We also did residency activities in Soweto. And then we performed at a Chinese moon festival in South Africa. For that 10 days we were there, that was really the turning point for us."
The two received a grant to study with the Beijing Opera in the summer of 1997, during the handover of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China. A year later, they were composers-in-residence at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and were able to bring over members of the Beijing Opera to work with them on their collaboration.
In addition to Western and Chinese vocals, When Sorrow Turn to Joy also will feature the two-stringed instruments jinghu and erhu as well as Chinese percussion, as performed by members of the Beijing Opera. The ensemble also will feature bassist Marcus Shelby and drum legend Tootie Heath.
"Tootie also plays African percussion beautifully," Newton said. "So Jon and I had this idea of what Beijing Opera and African percussion would sound like together."
One Big Happy Family
The compositions in When Sorrow Turns to Joy by Jang and Newton and also by jinghu player Pan Yonling allow opportunities for all the players to stretch — without egos running rampant, Newton said.
"There aren't any gigantic egos with the people that are involved in the project, which makes a great deal of difference," the flutist said. "Everyone is really working toward the magic of the work to really speak."
"There's a high level of respect for each other's art," Jang added. "It's a challenge for James and me to perform the Beijing Opera passages, to go into that world — which is something we don't do every day — and try to respectively interpret it with feeling and being creative with it. And then we switch gears to music that's more familiar to us and comes out of our musical language."
"In Minneapolis, we pushed the Beijing Opera percussionist to improvise a little bit, and he just went for it. We said, 'Whoa! OK. Now we know you're corruptible,' " Newton said with a laugh.
Beyond the shows in Berkeley and Minneapolis, the two hope to take the work on tour.
"We'd like to take it to Europe and even China and Africa," Newton said. "Hopefully this work will have a long shelf life."