by Marc Rochester, International Record Review, June 30, 2005
Sandia Ang (soprano) Eva; Ryu-Kyung Kim (mezzo) Mother; Zheng Zhou (baritone) Father's Ghost; Charlee Chiv, Scott Chan, Mona Chiang, Wai Ching Ho, Henry Yuk (vocalists) Student Voices; William Schimmel (accordion); Juan Carlos Rivas.
New World Records 80626-2 (full price, two discs, 1 hour 42 minutes). English libretto included. Website www.newworldrecords.org. Producers Susan Cheng, Jason Kao Hwang. Engineers Jon Rosenberg, Leslie Lavalenet. Date October 30th, 2001.
Between them Jason Kao Hwang and Catherine Filloux have addressed the problem of combining Chinese and Western styles with astonishing success here. By placing their chamber opera The Floating Box in New York's Chinatown and having as its protagonist Eva, the thoroughly American daughter of Chinese immigrants fascinated by the discovery that her dead father was a leading musician in China, they are not creating an artificial link between two very disparate cultures but mirroring something which is very real. Filloux recalls how she spent many hours recording oral histories from Chinese immigrants before embarking on her libretto and how a photograph in New York's Museum of Chinese in the Americas gave her the idea of having at the opera's core a box, placed on the family's domestic altar, containing memorabilia of the family's life in China.
This all gives wonderful scope for Hwang to combine Chinese traditional instruments with Western musical elements in a way which avoids that sense of pastiche or novelty which still undermines most attempts to coalesce the two. With such delicately toned instruments as the erhu and the pipa, the matter of balance is crucial if these are not to sacrifice their essentially intimate qualities, but Hwang has effectively solved this in two ways. First, he has produced a remarkably sparse score, these instruments heard either on their own or accompanying a solo voice (as in Eva's magical response to hearing a recording of her father's erhu-playing), and second, he has confined the western instruments to ones which in range and tone-quality offer no competition to the Chinese ones. Most inspired of all is his use of the accordion to provide the harmonic filling; and in this he is served by the admirable William Schimmel, whose subtlety is in itself one of the highlights of this recording.
For her part Filloux's sensitivity to the subject-matter manages to sidestep any of the manifest dangers inherent in writing a libretto in which Chinese people have to sing in English. True, one of them does sing 'liver' (for 'river'), but the powerful image Filloux re-creates of a struggling immigrant's recollection of how he jumped from the ship is so compelling that it's impossible to find this anything but deeply moving. Indeed her portrayal of Chinese immigrants attempting to establish themselves in a strange land while unable to divest themselves of their own culture is in itself both compelling and totally convincing. Her characterization of the ghost of Eva's father makes far more sense to a Chinese psyche in which the honouring of ancestors' spirits brings the dead far more alive than the rather wishy-wash ghosts of western cultures.
There are eight instrumentalists and eight singers involved, carefully and expertly balanced by Juan Carlos Rivas. Sandia Ang's Eva finds exactly the right blend of bored American teacher and respectful Chinese daughter and sings throughout with impeccable poise and control. Ryu-Kyung Kim, as her mother, puzzled by this strange land, her daughter's 'foreign' ways and with memories of her dead husband never far from the surface, has a beautifully pathetic quality, while a gloriously full-voiced Zheng Zhou copes magnificently with the duality of being a spirit appearing before Eva and a young man escaping from China as a ship's cook in one flashback scene.
If Hwang's name might be unfamiliar to readers of this journal that is largely because he has confined his musical activities to date to World Music and Jazz. And while The Floating Box is not his first foray into the field of formal composition, it is certainly a sufficiently accomplished work to warrant a wider international audience than his music has hitherto enjoyed. This is especially the case when it is recorded with such vivid clarity and spaciousness as here and performed by such a team of accomplished musicians.
- Marc Rochester, International Record Review, June 30, 2005