AS the curtain rises on the Chinese opera "Savage Land," one sees a prisoner in a bright red tower of an open cell eight stories high, above a bleak moonscape of land. The prisoner sings and cries his heart out.
In the dim orchestra pit below, a woman with a blond ponytail conducts Jin Xiang's contemporary opera, "Savage Land," written and sung in Chinese, with the English translation projected for the audience across the top of the Washington Opera stage at Kennedy Center here.
The conductor is Paulette Haupt, an American who is artistic director of the National Music Theater Conference at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn. She was the primary discoverer of "Savage Land" in Beijing when she was conducting a production of "The Music Man" for the Beijing Central Opera Company, along with George White, president of the O'Neill Theater Center, who directed it.
They heard the work (which had its world premiere there in 1987) in a rehearsal room with only piano accompaniment. After the rehearsal, Ms. Haupt relates, "I invited him [Mr. Jin] to come and talk with us at the hotel, to say that we loved the opera" and wanted to do it at the O'Neill Center. It was done as a work-in-progress at the O'Neill, with the cast carrying scripts or scores; no piano, no lights, no costumes, and only a sketch of the libretto by Wan Fang.
"The response was incredible," she says. "People were crying - standing ovations for a reading in rehearsal clothes. So we felt there was no question that an opera company should do it, and in particular, that the Washington Opera at Kennedy Center in the capital of the US should be the place to do it."
But it was a cliffhanger; a prolonged strike by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra was resolved just before "Savage Land" was to have its American premiere.
So what is on stage until Feb. 9 is a vivid, violent opera with Jin's gorgeous music - a tale of bloody revenge and warring families. Its hero, wrongfully imprisoned for eight years, returns to find his family killed, and his fiancee married to the son of the enemy (now dead) who falsely accused him. The opera is based on a play about Chinese life in the '20s written by the librettist's father, Cao Yu, a popular dramatist.
Haupt speaks of the parallels in Jin's own life to the opera story: that he was wrongly imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution, did a lot of hard labor over a 20-year period, lost part of his family, and lost his freedom.
"It's pretty overwhelming when you think about what this must mean to him and what he's been through," she says.
WE sit talking about all this in the green room of the opera house and about the all-important critical reviews from the US press.
"We were all holding our breath, hoping for some success," Haupt says. They got more than that. They got near-rave reviews from both the New York Times and the Washington Post critics, including bows to Haupt's sensitive conducting.
Both reviews mentioned the Puccini-like feeling of this Chinese opera, and Haupt agrees: ve teased Jin, the composer, since I met him that in a former life he had to be Italian. Many of the arias and duets are as lush and melodic as Puccini and Verdi's operas. And yes, there's a blend all the time. You know that it's not Western music. It's partly the pentatonic scales, partly the blend of Chinese percussion instruments, and harmonically it's more in the pentatonic mode. You are constantly aware that the re are soaring melodies happening and tremendous dramatic emotion - that it's coming from another kind of ear."
Haupt says all the instruments are Western with the exception of 10 to 12 Chinese percussion instruments: from the Peking opera drum to Chinese wood blocks and tams (like gongs), as well as timpani, snare, and chimes.
"The blend of all that, which took a few more players, is extraordinary. It really pulsates through the whole work. The percussion is really very important, and that's part of the blend of East and West - how they interweave."
How tough is this Chinese opera to conduct?
"It's very tough, because there are probably not more than two or three places in it where you don't have meter changes constantly.... That and the fact that the tonalities are different - what sounds wrong is right. It's the hardest work I've ever conducted, there's no question."
Like most American conductors, she has had no experience with Chinese music. "It was very hard to learn ... even though I could hear it in my head, because I always study an opera or music-theater work from the text out." And this time she couldn't; she couldn't read Chinese.
"Yes, a bunch of little trees under those notes.... But it slowly came, and instead of learning it from the text, I would learn it rhythmically."