Fantasy of the Red Queen
A Chamber Opera in 6 scenes
The Fantasy of the Red Queen is a chamber opera by Liu Sola. An opera of 6 scenes, prologue and epilogue, this work is inspired by the life of Jiang Qing, the Red Queen. Uniquely however, this opera does not tell the story of the “Red Queen,” herself – that is, of Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s fourth wife. Instead, the opera unravels the story of a woman whose dream of power makes her identify so closely with Jiang Qing leading her mind to believe that she really is Jiang Qing.
Jiang Qing was the chief instigator and driving force behind the Cultural Revolution. After a lacklustre career as an actress in Peking Opera and cinema in 1920s Shanghai, she joined the communists at Ya’nan, where she met and later married Mao. For many years, she was forced to live in his shadow. However, in the mid sixties, in the face of increasing political opposition, Mao enlisted his wife’s help in unleashing the Cultural Revolution. Sensing her time had come, she soon became its leading figure. She used the Cultural Revolution to rid herself of personal enemies and rivals, to settle old scores and to impose her notion of ‘revolutionary art’ upon others.
Arrests, torture and political murders – mainly of intellectuals and people working in the cultural sphere – were carried out at her command. Countless publications were destroyed, museums and theatres stormed and looted. Red Guards formed all over China, first at the Universities and shortly afterwards at the schools and factories too.
The Red Guards obeyed her orders, causing chaos and destruction across the country. She personally commissioned and directed the eight so-called ‘model operas’ – the only operas allowed to be performed during the Cultural Revolution. After Mao’s death, she was arrested by her adversaries and deprived of all her rights, even the right to call herself Mao’s widow. She was held in prison for about twenty years before committing suicide – a very ill woman – at the age of eighty.
In Liu Sola’s opera, the protagonist is not Jiang Qing but an old woman in a hospital, deranged by her dreams of power. Thus at one level, the opera is a political phantasmagoria: it presents politics as phantasmagoria. It shows the power of illusion – and the illusion of power. Other levels of the story unfold through a mixture of fact and fantasy, memory and desire.
Events take place both on stage and on a giant video screen. On stage, we recognise immediately that guardians of the new social order (represented by the nurse, the secretary and the chef) are no longer Red Guards but citizens of a consumer society – a society of cell-phones, global commodities and MSG-laced cuisine. On stage, the old lady sits staring at a blank wall which turns into a video screen on which she sees herself during different periods of her life: as a young woman, as a Peking Opera actress, as a beautiful mature woman confined to the Forbidden City, and as the Red Queen dressed in Peking Opera costume. In later scenes, other images fill the screen: a Peking Opera dancer performing movements codified as ‘revolutionary’ and the same dancer appearing as a ghost. In every scene, a masked zither player appears, playing an old tune with no political overtones. This mysterious zither player is a key symbolic figure, representing something like the stubborn structure of historical traditions which persists in spite of ‘revolutionary’ and ‘capitalist’ transformations. The other key figure is the Devil, whose dialogues with the Red Queen lie at the dramatic and emotional centre of the opera. He controls and manipulates her at the same time as he seems to be helping her to gratify her deepest desires. The Devil understands the power of ‘tradition’ and it is from him that the Red Queen gets the idea of combining Chinese traditional opera and the revolution to form the revolutionary opera. Their interchange serves to show that the desire for power is only one particular instance of the power of desire, which we are paradoxically powerless to resist. This dialectical relationship between power and powerlessness, especially poignant in the case of women in patriarchal society, communist or capitalist, can lead to the tragic end of a Jiang Qing or a Red Queen.
The music takes motives from revolutionary songs, traditional music, Shanghai pop, nineteen thirties jazz, the so-called revolutionary tango, traditional Chinese opera, Chinese hip-hop, as well as romantic, modern and contemporary classical music. It draws a selection from the diverse forms of music created during the last 150 years all over the world in order to explore the relationship between the music and the social imaginary. Liu Sola’s own score is generated through a process of composition and decomposition: it eschews musical purity. In music devoted to the Red Queen we hear the beginnings of musical lines that are broken off, interrupted, diverted. Nevertheless, a kind of extreme passion permeates the whole.
The musicians from the Ensemble Modern wear black suits and grey arm bands. They form a semi-circle in the background and play the parts of security guards. They also move about: running, dancing and singing.
Chinese musicians in the foreground wear grey overalls and play the hospital staff. Liu Sola is the Red Queen: a bewildered old lady. A well known Beijing pop singer takes the role of the nurse who would much rather be a pop star. A well known star from the traditional Peking Opera performs the role of the Devil, who repeatedly helps the Red Queen to establish contact with the past.
The set is uncompromisingly stark and plain; it consists of a large bed with a video screen behind it. The hospital bed fully occupies the centre of the stage. It is here that the Red Queen acts throughout the performance. A DVD projection on a blackand-white screen provides encrypted flashbacks to the time of the Cultural Revolution as well as to the preceding period: surging crowds, the decorated uniform jacket of a top functionary, a dancing Shanghai Opera beauty from the 1920s. The entire set, including the costumes, is black-and-white. The only fields of colour are the costumes of the Red Queen from her glorious period; some of them hang here and there; and some are worn by her during the course of the opera.
Duration: 1 1⁄2 hours with no interval.
The opera consists of a prelude, six scenes and an epilogue, with no change of set.