Composer and Alum Yao Chen Interviewed about New Opera Created in Collaboration with UChicago Professor Judith Zeitlin

Yao Chen headshot


Composer Yao Chen (University of Chicago, PhD '12) was featured in "Creative Turn in Arts Scholarship," an article in Spring 2023 edition of the journal Sound Stage Screen. Chen was interviewed alongside Judith Zeitlin (William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, and the Committee on Theater and Performance Studies at the University of Chicago), who is his collaborative partner on Ghost Village—an opera based on a ghost tale by the Chinese writer Pu Songling. 

In the interview, Chen and Zeitlin chat with musicologist Giorgio Biancorosso about the development of writing a libretto for an opera, re-discovering the sound of the Ming pipa, and the creative process behind composing the opera's music. 

Read an excerpt of the interview below, check out Chen and Zeitlin's feature on the Center for East Asian Studies' website here, and click here to read the full interview in Sound Stage Screen




Biancorosso: Yao Chen, how is the music written? Is this a relatively straightforward process in which the text comes first in the creative process and then you write the music? Were there musical ideas or gestures or sonic ideas that actually even pre-existed the writing of the text?

Chen: Yeah, of course, the text comes first, and then music. But there have been always some preexisting sounds haunting for a long time in my mind which I want to realize in this opera. While we’re working with the text, I often share my “mute” sound ideas with her. For example, at the beginning, we thought about the music style for the first act, which takes place in the earthly world which is full of earthly suffering and social injustice, so ugly and so horrifying. So, I think about creating ghostly string sounds to represent that. But in the second act, which takes place in the underworld, there is a wedding going on attended by lots of beautiful people. I perceive some truth-revealing energy in every corner there. So, we decided to set the second act within the sounds of euphoria, speaking for unreality, eeriness, alienation, and uncanniness. There is also some idea about how to treat the chorus.

Biancorosso: Is the chorus a new addition to the source-text?

Chen: There is no chorus in the tale, but we thought the chorus is very important for our opera. The chorus people can be seen as ghosts, village people, and also commentators. They can help to build up the objective perspective of the opera.

Zeitlin: For me, there always had to be a ghost chorus. That was like the first thing in my imagination and why I wanted us to turn this historical ghost story into an opera. The story begins with a short narrative about a Qing government crackdown on a local rebellion in the 1660s, which resulted in many innocent people being killed. This short narrative is very evocative. T here were so many victims, the city ran out of coffin wood, and their blood turned to emerald beneath the earth, which is a Chinese allusion for martyrdom. That is the initial set up. The story proper begins about a dozen years later when a scholar, this unnamed man, comes to the provincial capital where these people are buried and sets things into motion. So how do you do that narration in an opera? We decided to put it into the ghosts’ mouths themselves as a chorus. There are gaps in the logic, in the story. The story takes place in the provincial capital, but there were two counties that had the most victims in the crackdown. So, when the scholar comes to the provincial capital he makes a libation to their spirits. He remembers his dead friends and that sets into motion the whole plot. When he gets back to his room at the inn, the ghost of a former friend just shows up. It’s very loose; it’s too fast. We had to fill something in, to make it more causally dense. So, now the ghosts deliberately lure him from the very beginning. They are also now the narrators. It’s not just “this happened to them,” but “this happened to us,” which is so much more powerful. I don’t even remember now whose idea was whose anymore. So that’s another sign of this collaboration.