Madame Mao


Bright Sheng

Colin Graham

Performance forces:
orchestra ( – 0 timp, 4perc, hp – str) — SATB chorus



The story of Madame Mao (Jiang Ching) has all the intensity of a dramatic thriller but, in spite of its authentic history, it also has the more usual operatic dimensions of love, lust, repression and characters that are extreme in their emotions and actions. The story depends on two elements: repression and revenge–one breeds the other. It tells how Jiang Ching changes from a naive young actress (who truly loved and idolized Mao and his communist ideals) to an evil driven and vengeful murderer. As her hopes die one after the other, each indignity she suffers from Mao and the Party serves to fan the revenge she extorts when, finally, her unrequited love turns into ill-willed, political retaliation against them all. The opera presents a challenge to present convincingly the various events in (Madame Mao’s) life over the space of forty years as it moves fluidly from one event to another, despite leaps in real time–a complicated story in a short theater piece. The story line therefore has to be simple and clear while it must be understandable and emotionally engaging for the audience, whether or not they are familiar with recent Chinese history. It is dramatically satisfying to divide the role into two singers– as the young, idealistic Jiang II (high soprano) interacts throughout the opera with her older, sinister and more cynical self, Jiang I (dramatic mezzo). This also assists in the fluidity of the passages of time. IN a way, Madame Mao is also a feminist who fights single-handedly in the midst of a powerful and male-dominated society. And it is ironic as Jiang struggles all her life to avoid the same fate as Zhizen, Mao’s first wife, who goes mad and is put away by Mao in the middle of Act II. Doubly ironic since Jiang was virtually insane by the time she was able to exact her revenge. —Bright Sheng