A Soprano’s Triumphant Journey

Brian Haman reviews Journey to the West by Melanie Ho

Opera travels well. Its stories are the stories of our collective humanity – love, loss, revenge, strife, rebellion, rejuvenation, absurdity, tragedy – and its archetypes not only define cultures but also connect them. In many respects, we can no longer speak in essentializing ways about Western opera or Chinese opera, but rather must address the world of opera and global operatic voices.

But what of its performers? What does it mean to think and feel and dream and sing in a language not one’s own, on a foreign stage, in a foreign land, under a foreign sky? For people and cultures in transit, the self is understood as neither fixed nor certain, but mutable and contingent. If you are a Western reader, then imagine for a moment boarding a plane to Shanghai with little cultural knowledge of China and virtually no ability to speak or understand Mandarin. In the absence of familiar salves of continent, city, country and society, the architecture of music imbues the opera singer with a familiar sense of movement, balance and scale within unfamiliar surroundings.