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Be She Alive or Be She Dead


Emily Koh’s HER | alive.un.dead will run from May 12th to May 14th in Guerilla  Opera’s world premiere production at Pao Arts Center. The concert-length media opera concerns itself with three generations of Asian women in a single family. The opera focuses on the specific experiences of being an Asian woman in a largely Western society and upbringing. This clash between East and West is interpreted differently between three generations of women in a single family, and changes drastically from character to character due to each character’s background and upbringing.

The creative team for this original production includes composer and librettist Emily Koh, stage direction by Mo Zhou, and video projection design by Nuozhou Wang. The opera runs approximately 90 minutes and is sung in English, Mandarin and Teochew with supertitles. BMInt asked stage director Mo Zhou, whose recent work with Boston Baroque we praised HERE, and composer and librettist Emily Koh, to picture the show for us.

MZ: Emily and I are immigrants to United States, and we both have experienced clashes between the eastern patriarchal system and our later-found, liberty and new identity, as independent women living in western society.

EK: The idea for the opera started a long time ago, stemming from two previous works – At the End of the End (2009) a noir-inspired work set entirely in the In-Between where characters expound on the meanings of life after death, and Generations (2011) an opera scene about my collaborator’s family, with four generations of women in a single family set in a split-stage production during both the Korean War and modern day. In this work, I wanted to explore the changes in perspectives of immigrant women of different generations as this is something I experience as an immigrant to the US and as a second-generation Singaporean.

MZ: The main character, the first generation of the daughter (HER), is facing a choice of bringing a new life to the world out of wedlock, which is a shameful and much frowned upon decision. Of course, this brings a lot of chaos to the Chinese family. HER dies in childbirth, and her daughter HER2 is brought up by her grandparents (who she thinks are her parents). HER2’s parents’ helicopter-styled parenting suffocates HER2, which results in the teen’s suicide. In The “In-Between,” a liminal space between life and death, HER and HER2 reconcile, and through that meeting, fulfill many of their personal expectations, and resolve personal crises.

The program refers to English, Mandarin and Teochew. What is the is the musical language that puts these words across? Are there their actual arias? Parlando? How does it work musically?

MZ: Most of the arias are in English, and some are very pointy. Certain deeper thoughts come to us in Mandarin when they are talking about the specific Chinese sayings. For example, there is a Chinese saying that the white-haired person sending a hill black-haired person off the hill is profoundly sad, and shames the family name. In this opera, Emily composed that phrase of grief into a duet. But yes, there are what we can imagine as 21st-century equivalents of recitative and arias in the work too.

EK: It is very difficult to set Mandarin and Teochew, which are both tonal dialects, to music, as the changes in pitch change the meanings of the words. As such, a lot of the Mandarin and Teochew appear in what we might call 21st-century recitative: text spoken over orchestral accompaniment. There are also other moments where texts are read in a manner influenced by Teochew opera, or where the ensemble play in a fashion similar to that of a Teochew opera ensemble.

And stage business?

MZ: The Pao Center is a very small white box. All the action takes place in front of the audience. With a space so intimate, and so close audience, we can’t be truly realistic with the childbirth If we put in an actual maternity ward, that would take up half the room.

In traditional Chinese opera, every story can be told by one table and two chairs. We have three chairs and it just really creating a multi-purpose surface and a prop; then we can make very seamless transitions and ask the audience to use their imagination and follow the story. And we use a little bit projection, but the Pao Center, is literally size of somebody’s living room. We project onto multiple frames like a gallery.

The audience sits literally two feet away from the singers. Everything feels intimate and you feel like you are part of the story!

See related review HERE

Jeannette Lee as Nurse and Sol Kim Bentley as HER1 (Timothy Gurczak photo)

HER | alive.un.dead by Emily Koh
Friday, May 12, at 8:00 pm through Sunday May 14th at 3:00
Location: Pao Arts Center, 99 Albany Street
ickets: HERE


Sol Kim Bentley, soprano as HER1
Nina Guo, soprano as HER2
Jeannette Lee, mezzo-soprano as Mum
Jiayin Shi, baritone as Dad
Lilit Hartunian, violin
Stephen Marotto, cello
Philipp Stäudlin, saxophone
Mike Williams, percussion


Emily Koh, composer and librettist
Mo Zhou, Stage Director
Saskia Martinez, Scenic Designer
Lindsay Hoisington, Costume Designer
Marie Yokoyama, Lighting Designer
Nuozhou Wang, Projections Designer
Mike Williams, Ensemble Director
Keithlyn Parkman, Associate Producer|
Sarah Schneider, Artistic Programs and Production Manager
Aliana de la Guardia, Artistic Director




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