BROOKLYN – Concerns about climate change seem recent, dating back some 50 years. But Huang Ruo’s vocal theater piece Book of Mountains and Seas is a reminder that extreme, terrifying changes on our planet’s surface have been discussed since ancient times. By using Chinese myths from the fourth century BCE, Ruo has drawn a meaningful parallel with our own modern fears.
The work, produced by Beth Morrison Projects at St. Ann’s Warehouse and co-presented by the Prototype Festival and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street, had its world premiere at the Royal Danish Theater in 2021. Its American premiere was scheduled for January, but the 2022 Prototype Festival had to be canceled because of the Omicron-variant COVID surge in New York. The performances were rescheduled separately from the festival, and without the participation of Paul Hillier, who served as music director for the original production. Ruo took over his duties.
Book of Mountains and Seas is scored for 12 singers (members of the Choir of Trinity Wall Street) and two percussionists (Michael Murphy and John Ostrowski) positioned on either side of the stage. An essential element is puppetry, primarily abstract moving shapes, designed by Basil Twist and operated by six puppeteers. Twist also directed. With a black stage and black screen behind it, and the personnel dressed entirely in black, all the focus is on Twist’s creations and the spot-lit faces of whichever choristers are singing. The effect is of spookily disembodied heads.
Ruo chose four myths from the ancient book. The first, “The Legend of Pan Gu,” tells of a giant who held the sky above the earth for 18,000 years. Upon his death, his body turned into the sun, moon, rivers, mountains, plants, animals, and humans. In terms of music, libretto, and puppetry, this is an establishment piece. The women’s voices pass around a single pitch, as pre-cosmic chaos, decorated slightly with grace notes and slides. Ruo’s stark, intense concept would have benefitted from more precise intonation in the voices.
As Haydn does in the opening of The Creation, Ruo lets the musical pitches and rhythms represent the forming of the universe. Unisons become sustained half-steps, their dissonances sparking blips of life. Sounds from pitched and unpitched percussion crystalize like minerals. Increasingly agitated rhythms intensify like the energy of creation. The music is vaguely tonic, insofar as a particular pitch acts as a central note; the final blossoming of the world is shown in tone clusters akin to that huge C-major triad in the Haydn when the choir sings “And there was light.”
The creative team made a sometimes frustrating decision not to project the translation of the Chinese libretto until each section of text had been sung through at least once. I understand how the light on the screen might be a distraction, and how not knowing the words forces one to use the ears and eyes more actively. Still, there were many moments when I could only assume that changes in the musical content corresponded to textual changes that I could not recognize.
The second story is “The Spirit Bird,” telling of a princess who, after drowning, releases her spirit into a bird who tries to wreak vengeance on the sea. Twist draws on his signature affinity for flowing, billowing fabric to show both the water and the bird, with dramatic help from shadow and light designed by Poe Saegusa. Chunks of driftwood, a puppet motif throughout the opera, are attached lengthwise and swivel around the stage as a sea serpent.
The chorus sings in a madrigal-like texture through passages of 12-part imitative polyphony. Large pitch leaps in the women’s voices, dropping to a very low register, emphasize the strength and courage of the female spirit bird, while the men sing small intervals and even microtones. There are similarities here to late medieval performance practice: little or no vibrato, pure fifths, trembling voices as ornamentation, and restless modal harmony. Florid vocal lines paint the bird’s flight and the rolling waves.
The third movement, “The Ten Suns,” presents the first obvious analogy to climate change. It opens with the creation of ten suns, accompanied by a continuous ethereal drone from a singing bowl. The suns, spherical lanterns on thin black poles, appear gradually, one at a time, out of nowhere. Each brings with it one or two more singers. Thomas McCargar, bass singer and choir manager, holds together the meditative procedure with a haunting voice. As more suns coalesce, melismas are articulated with guttural punches until there are seven vocal parts so close together in pitch that they evoke 14th-century hocket.
That’s when things get scary. One day, the ten suns all decide to come out at once. “The heat causes grasses and trees to burn, lakes and rivers to dry up, animals and humans to die.” The singing bowl stops. A xylophone rumbles as the calming orbs become weapons, glowing a sickly nuclear pink and floating low over the audience, threatening us. We are trapped in this burning world. The chorus sings its first homorhythmic passages to the pulsing light, then passes around fearful shifting vowels, “Ayeee ayeee, ayeee.” Good thing the god Hou Yi shoots nine of the suns from the sky! Balance restored, the singing bowl’s hum starts up again, a reminder of life’s constant energy.
Like mythologies the world over, ancient Chinese stories imbue immortals with human-like fallibilities. In the hands of Ruo and Twist, “Kua Fu Chasing the Sun” examines the worst habitual behaviors of our species and the destruction that may result from them. The giant Kua Fu is fascinated by the sun, so he chases it. Because he can never catch it, he is always running.
Bright-toned drums slap out a virtuosic pattern played against the steady beat of a darker-sounding drum. Call and response is a thematic idea in this movement: The chorus engages in a conversation with conga-like drums, and men and women sing antiphonally.
Kua Fu himself is built of the driftwood pieces we’ve been seeing all along, bound together to form limbs, torso, and head. To the sound of repeating upward leaps of sevenths and fifths, for a long time the creature just sits up and watches us. Finally he stands. Cables from the ceiling support his upper body, while four puppeteers move his arms and legs. He runs and runs and runs, but the sun lantern is always just beyond his grasp. The relentless drumbeats are his strides that shake heaven and earth.
This, too, is a climate-change allegory. Periodically, Kua Fu gets thirsty and drinks until the riverbed is dry. A choir-wide glottal fry chillingly illustrates the drought caused by his deathly slurping. The planetary distress builds, with clanging metal in the percussion and voices simultaneously ascending and descending a pentatonic scale.
At last, Ruo returns to the unison where he started. Is he implying that we have a chance to start again? “With [Kuo Fu’s] death, forests of peach blossom trees sprout and grow.” Petals snow down onto the stage, and we’re left with hope in spite of everything.
Book of Mountains and Seas continues at St. Ann’s Warehouse through March 20. For tickets and information, go here.