Lotus Lives: an opera in one act for mezzo-soprano, soprano, brass quintet, and percussion


Lily is a young Chinese opera singer, performing in America, and coming off stage into her dressing room as her latest performance ends.  As she begins removing her costume, she begins the shadowy transition from performer to lay-person, from Chinese to American, from artist to woman.  Layers of history recent and distant begin to reveal themselves.  She relives her brush with the pop music industry, the pulsating club scene it backdrop, temptation and trouble its effect.  Those troubles are the thread to her grandmother, path-breaking Chinese suffragette, and childhood friend and confidante to Madame Chiang Kai-shek.  The lofty Madame Chiang Kai-shek is by turns quietly powerful and in denial.  Her grandmother dreams of emancipation and of a future for women yet to come---and that will come---one constantly denied by her friend.  Those dreams become rerouted by the opera singer’s mother and sister, whose lives are bound as in a Chinese folktale.  Her sister loses herself in her own reflection and drowns, plucked away by the Guanyin, goddess of the moon, who whisks her away in a ballet involving dancer and wayang kulit, Southeast Asian shadow-puppet theater.  The mother and daughter reunite once in old age, but they cannot be reconciled and are never released from their bond of death.  As the opera singer reflects on those people who are her, she has slowly removed her costume, her make-up, her character, and her art, transforming into a recognizably modern woman.  Rejecting authority’s denial and death’s long reach, she embraces the never-realized dreams of her grandmother.  She enters into the night defiant, no longer a Chinese performer of and ancient Asian art, but a modern American woman of an eclectic, ecstatic culture, releasing history and embracing life. 

Lotus Lives is a highly innovative opera in its musical language and materials.  It is in one-act and lasts fifty minutes.  Scored for the highly unusual combination of soprano, brass quintet, percussion, and video, it can also be expanded to two sopranos, brass quintet, percussion, violin, piano, dancer, and shadow-puppet theater.  It will appeal to a broad range of audiences in its moderate length, compelling narrative, and fusion of musical languages that, like the protagonist, transforms over the course of the opera.  The piece was commissioned by the Meridian Arts Ensemble, whose progressive, eclectic programming and virtuoso playing have won several awards and established large followings among audiences worldwide.   


          The bold and innovative music reflects the eclectic and clashing styles suggested by the libretto and also the diverse stylistic ranges that are hallmarks of MAE concerts.  The soprano’s vocal and acting requirements are equally challenging, spanning many different styles, and acting the roles of four different women. The music ranges from traditionally sung arias to tango, 1980’s dance synthesized dance music, hip-hop, Southeast Asian gamelan, and Chinese-inflected contemporary styles.  The soprano will be singing with brass and percussion instruments, and also digitally synthesized sounds and Chinese traditional instruments.  The ensemble members also become actors in one of the scenes.  The contrasting instrumentation, styles, and forms will propel the drama in an ironic reflection of the singer’s conclusive break, and form the expressive continuity of the work.

Set Design

         The staging of the opera is simple and creative.  The backdrop and imagery will appear through layers of projected video that will convey changes of time and place, as well as form their own continuity.  Filmed passages will comprise certain sections where stories interweave and overlap, as in the scene between the young grandmother and childhood friend who will become Madame Chiang Kai-shek, and the two same women in later years.  Video also will provide abstract contributions to the ballet and shadow-puppet theater that is part of the Chinese folktale 


          Composer Su Lian Tan has been commissioned by groups as diverse as the Grammy-winning Takacs String Quartet to the Meridian Arts Ensemble, and collaborated with celebrated authors Jamaica Kincaid and John Elder.  Her works span the gamut of styles from works from concert music to Chinese hip-hop and Malaysian folk-song arrangements.  The Meridian Arts Ensemble (MAE) has toured extensively in Europe, Asia, Central America, and the US, and has released ten commercial CD recordings. Twice they have won the ASCAP/CMA Award for Adventuresome Programming. Specializing in contemporary music, they have premiered over fifty new works.  The previous collaboration by Ms. Tan and the MAE resulted in Moo Shu Wrap Rap, where brass instruments made sounds imitating Chinese speech, set within a context of a hip-hop beat.  It was received extremely enthusiastically by audiences of all kinds, from new music aficionados to general audiences to children.  The MAE recorded the piece and performed it over one hundred times all around the world. 

Mezzo-soprano Brenda Patterson has won numerous awards and is a rising star at the Metropolitan Opera Company.

Soprano Miriam Stewart-Gordon made her debut recently to great ovation, as the top Walkure at Bayreuth. American feminist poet and librettist

Anne Babson has won the Spoon River Editor’s Prize, Columbia Journal Prize, and Working People’s Poetry Prize, among many others. 

The video design is by award-winning filmmaker Tim Bartlett, whose documentary and visual work has recently been seen at the Sundance Film Festival, New York's Knitting Factory, South by Southwest, and MTV. 

Department of Music

Mahaney Center for the Arts
72 Porter Field Road
Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT 05753