Opera's future may lie in China's past. TALK WITH A COMPOSER

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NAME a famous female composer. Now name one who's a Scot. Did you get it? No?

Here's a hint: She writes Chinese opera and she was waiting for Monitor contributor Nick Rossi in the foyer of the Marlowe Theatre when he arrived in Canterbury, England.

Give up?

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Her name is Judith Weir - and it's a name to reckon with when it comes to contemporary opera.

Two of Miss Weir's major works were performed in England this spring. ``The Consolations of Scholarship'' (1985) was part of the London International Opera Festival. ``A Night at the Chinese Opera,'' a work that the British Broadcasting Corporation commissioned her to write for a 1987 premier by the Kent Opera, is now being reproduced by that company during its current British tour.

How did this enthusiastic young woman from Aberdeen - home of highlanders and off-shore oil rigs - come to compose a modern opera with a Chinese theme?

``As a child I discovered a book on Chinese history - a rather good one which painted quite a realistic picture about their culture,'' Weir told Mr. Rossi in a quiet salon at the Marlowe. ``I became emgrossed in it. Many years later that led me to do some research in Chinese theater.''

There - in the pages of 13th-century plays - Weir found an answer to one of 20th-century opera's biggest conundrums.

``When I began to read the Chinese plays of the Yuan dynasty [1279-1368], I discovered that every musical device of music theater, every musical stylization of dramatic gesture, every economical reduction of everyday reality for theatrical purposes had been put down on the page by Chinese playwrights 700 years ago. And it had been done ... with a dramatic cogency and a justification for the presence of music for which, on the whole, 20th-century music theater is still waiting.''

The Yuan plays came from the era of Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. ``The subject matter of the plays is often satirical. [It] portrays familiar characters of the time - corrupt government officials, virtuous exiles, barbaric military men and so on.

``The plays alternate speech and dialogue with poetry, which was sung to musical accompaniment,'' said Weir, noting that the players probably delivered the dialogue as though it were rapid stand-up comedy. ``It was also evident that there was an almost complete absence of scenery, resulting in a necessity for constant mime, as when ... an actor enters a room whose walls are not visible. And there is the easy and rapid transition between speech and song, helped by the declamatory style of acting and the wide range of intonation in Chinese speech.

``My own first musical approach toward these plays was a 25-minute song-cycle for soprano and nine players, `The Consolations of Scholarship,' in which I combined the dramatic elements of several Yuan dramas and other Chinese sources into a storyline which resembled a speeded-up opera with the singer taking all the roles and narrative.''

``Consolations,'' with its quick character changes, is hardly suited to dramatic rendering. In fact its ``unstageability,'' says Weir, may be its ``most striking dramatic feature.''

Then the BBC commissioned Weir to write a work for the Kent Opera. The commission allowed Weir to realize her ``ambition to use more directly some of the stage features of Yuan drama.'' The result was ``A Night at the Chinese Opera.''

One of the opera's important features is its dramatic structure: It's a play-within-a-play. The protagonist spends Act II of the opera watching a performance of ``The Chao Family Orphan.'' The first half of this play mirrors the events of the first act of the opera. As the protagonist watches, he surmises that the second half of the play will outline his destiny - a destiny he finds unacceptable. He spends Act III trying to avoid this destiny, but the measures he takes lead him to connive with his own fate.

``As an opera-going composer with a particular enthusiasm for short operas,'' Weir went on to say, ``I had often considered the possibility of compiling operatic double bills in which a shortened ... version of a well-known opera would be paired with a newly composed work which shared its dramatic theme. Each would throw the other into relief. When I began to think of ways of presenting the great Yuan play, `The Chao Family Orphan,' through the eyes of a Western composer, I thought at first of a double bill like this. But finding myself equally fascinated by the extreme realism of the play - and by the historical reality of the period it depicts - I decided to explore the relationship between the two through the scarcely unusual method of the play-with-a-play.''

Weir received her musical training in England and the United States. She studied music while at King's College, Cambridge in the early 1970s. Then, in 1975, the Boston Symphony Orchestra gave her a Koussevit-sky Fellowship - an award that allowed her to study with Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony's summer home. She held positions at two British universities - first in Glasgow, then in Cambridge - before assuming her current role as the Kent Opera's resident composer.

Weir is now working on a piece commissioned by the Scottish Opera. But she refuses to divulge details about it. All she would reveal is that it will be set in Scotland - ``naturally,'' she laughed.

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