Chen Shi-Zheng was born and bred in China, is based now in New York and enjoys a dazzlingly diverse international career directing opera, theater and film.
I first came across him in 1996, and only heard his “back story” later. As director of the Lincoln Center Festival, I had conceived the insane idea of staging the complete, 55-scene kunqu opera The Peony Pavilion for the first time in 400 years, but I had no idea how to do it. I needed a Chinese director – or, as it turned out, director-producer. Chen had moved to New York in 1987 and was working with downtown New York performing artists. But he had also made his directing debut with the first piece that wasn’t a Beijing opera at the Chinese National Beijing Opera Company, a fascinating account of The Bacchae by Euripides. I saw a video, was impressed, we met, and the rest – for those privileged to see this initially fraught, hypnotically magical, novelistically enveloping three-day operatic landmark which toured worldwide — is history.
Chen, I later learned, had suffered during the Cultural Revolution, been trained as a performer in various Chinese opera styles, and sung Chinese pop music. But his breadth of knowledge of world culture and his intellectual curiosity not only suited him for The Peony Pavilion, but for his career ever since.
That career has embraced two kinds of work, Chinese and non Chinese, but the two flow together, enriching each other. His film Dark Matter, for instance, was a Western production, with Aiden Quinn and Meryl Streep, but its heart was the tale of a troubled Chinese student in America. For all its travails over the last century, China has become a major force in world culture, and not just culture: the sleeping giant has awakened. Even though he is now an American citizen, Chen is still steeped in his native country. He has directed stage work there, and made films. He has served as a kind of conduit for Chinese esthetic values into Western culture – overtly, as in his direction and choreography for John Adams’s opera Nixon in China in Paris, more subtly in his very sensibility in the staging of Western classics.
Those classics, primarily operatic, have included Orfeo and The Coronation of Poppea (a brilliant staged version of the Vespers of 1610 completed a Monteverdi trilogy), Dido and Aeneas, Cosi fan tutte and The Flying Dutchman. But there has also been a wide range of new work, some of it by Chen himself. There have been non-Chinese pieces, like Judith Weir’s Misfortune, Toshio Hosukawa’s opera on the Noh play Matsukaze, and a version of Hans ChristianAndersen’s My Life as a Fairy Tale with music by Stephin Merritt. He has directed Chinese-themed works by others, such as Stewart Wallace’s operatic setting of Amy Tan’s novel The Bonesetter’s Daughter.
Perhaps even more interesting are his own stage works based more or less loosely on Chinese classics. His trilogy of Orphan of Zhao, Snow in June and Peach Blossom Fan offered a rare insight into Chinese tradition by a contemporary, international artist. Sui generis was his Monkey: Journey to the West, based on a Chinese legend with music by Damon Albarn, a huge circus spectacle that played in major world cities.
During our work on The Peony Pavilion, Chen and I became friends, so it has been fascinating and rewarding, as a sympathetic critic, to observe his evolution. Balancing his Chinese heritage with Western tradition can be a difficult road to travel, but Chen is one of the leaders of a new kind of hybrid, east-west artistic spirit, invigorating his Chinese roots with fresh influences from abroad, and bringing a revitalized sense of China to the world.
Mr. John Rockwell is a music critic, editor, and dance critic. He served as the first director of the Lincoln Center Festival between1994 to 1998, and he was the editor of the New York Times’ Sunday Arts and Leisure section.