JAMES STRECKER: This was your second visit to Mr. Shi and His Lover at the Tarragon and your fourth time seeing the show since its premiere at Summerworks, so how exactly did your experience the forth time differ from the first time? Why?
STACIE DUNLOP: I was able to notice subtle changes that deepened my experience, and was quite stirred emotionally this time around, especially in the final ten minutes of the show when I was moved to tears for the first time since my first viewing. I realized afterwards that it was my own connection to the character who had communicated his personal tragedy of being a performer. Also, from my initial viewing at Summerworks, I had always thought that there could be a more physical connection between the two characters, and between the preview show I saw at the beginning of the Tarragon run and the final show that I saw of the run, they added this subtle physicality to a poignant section, which to me made it much more powerful.
JS: What in your opinion are the main challenges faced by the opera’s composer Njo Kong Kie in setting this work to music?
SD: Well, first, it is difficult to call this work an “opera,” as it does not really fit into that genre, nor would I consider it a musical. Rather I would say it falls into the music theatre genre, as it is more a dramatic story with music that I would not classify as operatic. The challenges I believe were the most difficult for Kong Kie and his team were those of the translations from Mandarin into English. The text is very deep, intellectual and intense, and in order to portray the correct meaning, it was at times vital to use vocabulary that was a direct translation from Mandarin, but the words might not be easily understood by the audience as they were not commonly used words in the English vocabulary.
JS: What in Njo’s music feels fresh and perhaps exciting and why exactly does it produce this feeling?
SD: Kong Kie uses traditional Chinese percussion instruments as well as composing a mixed genre of vocal styles that included Peking Opera. The stories of each character were also told in a unique upbeat and rhythmically propelling style, which I found a very interesting choice.
JS: You’re a professional soprano, usually in modern classical music, so what in your background prepared you to hear this opera and how were you unready to give it a listen?
SD: Because of my familiarity with new musical works, I am always very open, but at the same time highly critical of a new work, regardless of the genre that it is composed in. I think that this quality made it easy for me to take in the positive aspects of this compelling production, and I was especially fascinated by the Peking Opera style when it came in, but at the same time, I did find myself critical of the more traditional classical singing. I did not find myself to be “unready” in any respect.
JS: Why did you come back a fourth time?
SD: The work keeps evolving, and that is the most fascinating part of new work. They have had the luxury of building the show over a generous time frame, and I think that has been a great advantage. I am also a very close friend of Kong Kie, so of course I was interested to follow this development along with supporting the production by seeing it throughout its incubation and transformational stages.
JS: Name five pieces of music that would be natural to hear after a performance of Mr. Shi and His Lover and tell us why for each one.
SD: I can think of two:
1. Madame Butterfly: obviously, because that was referenced heavily in the show.
2. Peking Opera: I have never heard real Peking Opera, and my curiosity was piqued by Kong Kie’s use of it in Mr. Shi and his Lover
JS: This was a theatrical production and I wonder which aspects of its theatricality reached you the most deeply? And, of course, why it was so. The libretto? The direction? The design? The lighting? The acting?
SD: I found my connection with the characters, especially in the fourth performance, the aspect that affected me the most deeply. So, I would have to say, the acting. However, that would be closely followed by the direction, the lighting and then of course, the musical composition.
JS: You’re a performer so I wonder what your thoughts are when you look at the audience at a production like this.
SD: I guess my thoughts are always about why there aren’t more people in the audience. This was a great production in a small theatre, and yet, the house was not more than half capacity on most performances over their run at the Tarragon Theatre. So, as a performer and producer, I wonder what needs to happen to fill those seats. The audience was moved, the production is great, and yet the seats aren’t selling. It’s a really important and difficult issue.
JS: What surprised you about this production and were there any times that you wished for surprises?
SD: I was surprised, in a good way, that they had added more of an actual physical connection in this final show. It made sense, and I had always hoped that the characters would have more contact…so this was a nice surprise. As for more, I guess I could see the show pushing boundaries a bit more, it could be less conservative…but that might not be fitting, as it also makes sense to have this conservativeness.
JS: How did the persons involved in this production display genuine imagination and originality?
SD: It is a fairly barebones production, with very slim sets/costumes/props, and yet the scene is set very clearly with great imagination enhanced by clever lighting and minimal sets/props/costumes and makeup.
JS: How and why would seeing this production help an individual who usually shuns the arts?
SD: I think it is moving, and will reach out to touch everyone, arts lover or not. It is good theatre. How can experiencing that not help someone?
JS: How have your thinking and feeling been affected by seeing this production?
SD: Yes, it has made me think about my own projects and has certainly inspired me to dig deeper and work harder at bringing them to life.
JS: Anything else you would like to say?
SD: I was really touched by this production, and I hope that the audiences in Ottawa will be as equally affected by this wonderful show.