The New York Times

July 13, 2003

Stephin Merritt's Chinese Opera Score: 'Country and Eastern'


The songwriter Stephin Merritt, a diminutive baritone with sad eyes, is not the sort of person who does much spontaneous laughing. His best-known work, the Magnetic Fields' "69 Love Songs," is a sprawling, three-CD survey of pop music, full of bittersweet lyrics. But on a recent afternoon, as he was describing his schedule, he broke into a long, quiet laugh. "My life is seeming a little weird at the moment," he said. "I'm sitting in a high school, rehearsing an opera."

The school is the Fiorello H. La Guardia High School, one of the sites for this year's Lincoln Center Festival, which runs through July 27. The opera is "The Orphan of Zhao," a traditional Chinese play that will get a new Western treatment beginning on Friday. Though Mr. Merritt's work has drawn comparisons to great tunesmiths of Broadway's golden age, like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, he has never written for the stage before, let alone for a 13th-century Chinese folk opera.

There is not what you would call an obvious affinity between Mr. Merritt's song catalog and the story of "The Orphan of Zhao." The albums he has written and recorded over the last decade with his bands (the Magnetic Fields, the 6ths, Future Bible Heroes and Gothic Archies) are long on boulevard wit, characters who have "Busby Berkeley Dreams" and careful enumerations of why "Love Is Like a Bottle of Gin." The opera, by contrast, concerns a wicked general, Tu An-Gu, who kills 300 members of his court rival's family, but, thanks to the family doctor, Cheng Ying, and a series of noble suicides, cannot kill a lone infant who grows up and takes revenge: something like "Gangs of New York" with self-immolation.

But the show's director, Chen Shi-Zheng, heard in Mr. Merritt's records just what he needed. He had been looking for a songwriter who wrote ballads like Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. After many fruitless trips to Tower Records, a friend suggested he try "69 Love Songs," which appeared in 1999. Mr. Chen liked the songs' irony and humor; he thought they might suit the black comic tone of "The Orphan of Zhao." He also appreciated how easily Mr. Merritt veered from Tin Pan Alley to free jazz to country and western. "I admire his ability to assimilate a lot of American popular music and to find his own voice in it," Mr. Chen said.

Mr. Chen, who immigrated to the United States from China in 1987, specializes in stylistic collision. Best known for mounting the acclaimed multipart "Peony Pavilion" at the 1999 festival, he directed a contemporary chamber opera, "The Night Banquet," last summer, in which characters memorably drove around the stage in tiny, battery-operated cars. These left Mr. Merritt "seething with envy": "I made him introduce me to the producer," Mr. Merritt said. "I still don't have one."

In the current festival, Mr. Chen will stage two parallel versions of "The Orphan of Zhao." A traditional one, performed by Chinese actors in Mandarin, with English supertitles, will run from July 23 to 27 at the Clark Studio Theater; the Western version will be performed in English by American actors, through July 27 at the La Guardia Drama Theater. It will include new dialogue by the downtown playwright and actor David Greenspan and new songs by Mr. Merritt. "It's a strange combination," Mr. Chen said, "but it works."

A rehearsal several weeks ago revealed the kind of deep fusion that Mr. Chen has been developing over two years of workshops and rewrites. The white-clad actors draw poses and ritualized movements from the Chinese tradition, but keep a loose-limbed physicality that is distinctly American. They also deliver Mr. Greenspan's dialogue in ordinary speech, not the heightened style of the original.

"It's not metaphysical poetry, like Shakespeare," Mr. Greenspan said. "My main intention was to make it sound natural in the mouths of American actors." Mr. Chen said that Mr. Greenspan was not the first adapter attached to the project, but that he was the first to understand that he should not dwell on the characters' psychologies. When the infant's mother (Jenny Bacon) tries to persuade the doctor (Rob Campbell) to save the child, she repeats a simple refrain three times: "Take pity on the 300 souls of the Zhao family." He finally responds, "O.K."

Mr. Merritt's music contains the opera's most intriguing cultural synthesis. The feud between Tu An-Gu and the Zhao clan reminded him of the Hatfields and McCoys. He gave Mr. Chen a Carter Family album to introduce him to what Mr. Merritt described as a "tinny" sound one free of percussion that might suit the opera. Mr. Chen wanted to use Western instruments; Mr. Merritt disagreed. Since a coin toss decided the matter in Mr. Merritt's favor, the final lineup includes two Chinese instruments a jinghu, or two-string fiddle, and pipa, or lute and an autoharp. The result sounds like some exotic strain of bluegrass: Mr. Merritt calls it "country and eastern."

THOUGH he had never composed for the jinghu or pipa before, Mr. Merritt said they resembled the violin and banjo enough to be "not wholly unfamiliar." He knew the autoharp more intimately, having composed songs like the 6ths' "You You You You You" for it, and playing it himself. As Mr. Chen predicted, Mr. Merritt has written songs that draw on disparate traditions yet remain recognizably his.

Songs in Chinese opera don't work the way that a musical number does in a Broadway show. Instead of stopping for 32 bars of verses and refrains, scenes are punctuated by short sung passages, sometimes only four or six lines. When an old man (William Youmans) agrees to protect the orphan, knowing it means his death, he sings:

In the spring when I was young

Blossoms frail from all trees hung

They are faded now

They have all faded now.

"I don't usually write about nature and flowers," Mr. Merritt said with a sly smile. "But it's not really about nature and flowers. It's about bloodshed and despair." Those are more familiar subjects? "Yes."

It is in lyric writing, the area where theatrical music today is weakest, that Mr. Merritt is strongest. Some of his finest songs, like "The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side" and "The Night You Can't Remember," are concise comic narratives with fleshed-out characters and dramatic flair. (That theatrical touch extends to his concerts: last fall, he took the stage for the Next Wave of Song at the Brooklyn Academy of Music wearing a pink and silver clown outfit, no explanation given. He said he didn't know that Cole Porter had done something similar early in his career.)

Mr. Merritt's lyrical skill, melancholy characters and obvious delight in using words in clever, beautiful ways all recall Lorenz Hart. His songs for "The Orphan of Zhao" contain traces of Hart's sensibility, but here it is triangulated with Bertolt Brecht's, as in this song by the villainous Tu An-Gu (David Patrick Kelly):

It's my favorite time of year

For a spree of crime and fear

It's a joy just to breathe

And to scheme and to seethe

What a [expletive] lovely day.

For all the affinities between his work and theirs, Mr. Merritt does not genuflect before the legends of Broadway. Pressed about his predecessors, he offered a string of irreverent views:

On Hart: "He's the Shakespeare of self-pity. When he's not writing about that, you wish he were."

On Porter, from whom he said the influence is primarily negative: "I hate list songs. I'm so sick of being compared to Cole Porter, now I hate Cole Porter."

On Berlin: Mr. Merritt has a dog named Irving, but it would be a mistake to read too much into this. "I'm as influenced by Hallmark greeting cards as by Irving Berlin."

Mr. Merritt said he had been approached by "reasonably high-profile" producers about turning "69 Love Songs" into a revue, but no one has been willing to use the full album, which he thinks defeats the purpose. He said he wanted to do an original musical, though he didn't have "a notebook full of ideas."

Writing songs for a Chinese opera may be an improbable way to begin a stage career, but for Mr. Merritt it's a promising one. In Mr. Chen he has found a collaborator who shares his spare, unorthodox approach, one that is far from common in the New York mainstream. Their next collaboration will take them even farther afield: Mr. Chen has a commission from the Royal Danish Opera to create a show celebrating the 200th anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen's birth in 1805; Mr. Merritt will write the music. He might also join Mr. Chen on a new staging of the classic 17th-century Chinese drama "Peach Blossom Fan" at the California Institute of the Arts next year.

"The Orphan of Zhao" may signal the start of an important partnership for the musical theater, provided it's not derailed by a certain grievance lingering from "The Night Banquet." "I kept one car," Mr. Chen said. "Stephin doesn't know."

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