Bright Sheng - The Song of Majnun

updated 2 May 2001

Bright Sheng
The Song of Majnun
An Opera of Lyric Tragedy in One Act
Duration: ca 60'
Libretto (En): Andrew Porter after the classic Asian love story
Cast: T, S, B-Bar, 2 Mz, Mz, Bar, Bar / Chorus

World Premiere: 9 April 1992
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Richard Buckley, conductor
Colin Graham, director
Marie Ann Chiment, set and costume designer
Todd Hensley, lighting designer
Commissioned under the auspices of the Lyric Opera of Chicago Composer-in-Residence program.

Majnun:Rodrick Dixon, tenor
Layla:Yan Yan Wang, soprano
First Gossip:Beverly Thiele, mezzo-soprano
Second Gossip:Julia Bentley, mezzo-soprano
Layla's Mother:Eleni Matos, mezzo-soprano
Layla's Father:Mark Jones, baritone
Ibn Salam:Elias Mokole, baritone
Majnun's Father:Jonathan Oehler, bass-baritone
The Bird:Kimberly Jones
Chorus of Townspeople


Critical Acclaim:

The piece [The Song of Majnun]...reveals the lyric gifts of composer Bright Sheng in a way that his previous, smaller works could not. Sheng establishes his musical vocabulary early on, with one long strand of melody winding gently around another....most ideas unfold in flowing streams of melody.
-- Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune

What makes Sheng's opera so rewarding is his talent both for proposing a vocal line that admits shimmering beauty and verbal clarity and for framing the singers with striking, individualistic orchestral timbres.
-- Allan Ulrich, San Francisco Examiner

The lyricism is urgent, melodious, vocal...Porter's text is poetic, as is Sheng's treatment of it...The score catches and describes changing atmospheres, reflects and characterizes the emotion dynamically. That Sheng's first opera should be so telling speaks worlds about his gifts and compliments the Chicago Lyric Opera for which he wrote this during a two-year residency...
-- Robert Commanday, San Francisco Chronicle

Impressive... uniquely blended vocal lyricism...
-- Dorothy Samachson, Opera (UK)

In the composer's words:

One is fortunate to be a composer in our time. At least I think so. Throughout the history of Western music, from Gregorian Chant to John Cage and beyond, each new generation of composers has pushed forward the spectrum of musical composition, arriving now, by the end of the 20th century, at every conceivable (or conceived) extreme. Thus history has left us younger composers a tremendously rich culture to study and treasure. Our means of musical expression are so much more abundant. I am fortunate for yet another reason: Having grown up in China, having lived on the Tibetian border for eights years and having systematically studied Chinese and Asian music, I was inevitably enriched by the musical culture. Although my encounter with Western music started at an early age and has continued ever since, Chinese and Asian music is unquestionably my mother tongue, while I consider Western music culture my father tongue.

Prior to Majnun I have attempted different approaches of expression in my works. In H'UN (Lacerations): In Memoriam 1966-1976, I tried to utter the terror of the infamous 'Cultural Revolution' in China by building the entire work on the tuneless, dissonant interval of a minor second. In Three Chinese Love Songs, I told of my affection for the beauty of melodies and simple consonant harmonies. Majnun provided a perfect opportunity for me to explore both sides within one composition — it was a story that contained opposite extremes of dramatic emotions. And the fact that Majnun is an Asian legend has also made possible my search for a fitting harmonic language for the 'oriental' melodies.

There are many sides to the character of Majnun. In Arabic 'Majnun' means 'insane'; it also has a connotation of 'infatuated.' Majnun's tragedy is not only his ill-fated and unfulfilled love for Layla, but also the conflict between his love and his degradation by society which drives him to become an estranged and alienated individual.

The story of Majnun is symbolic. On one level, it is almost autobiographical, telling a love story between China and me, with Layla representing China and Majnun representing me. The metaphor has become especially meaningful since the recent turbulence in China during the early years of this decade. Majnun is a tragedy. It is also a love song.


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