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Updated 1:00 PM June 30, 2003
 

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Scenes from the life of a composer and teacher

Hear an excerpt from "The Stream Flows" by Bright Sheng mp3 (requires audio plugin)
Hear an excerpt from "Nanking! Nanking!" by Bright Sheng mp3 (requires audio plugin)

On North Campus, in a small room with cream-colored block walls, are an industrial strength metal desk, a Chinese scroll unrolled to show its black and white figures, and what only can be described as a beat-up piano. This is the office of award-winning composer Bright Sheng.
(Photo by Moises Saman)

Here, encompassed in an environment Sheng says is fertile both for faculty and students, the composer finds the balance of academic and mainstream styles essential to his craft. "I don't really need to teach," Sheng says. "If I weren't teaching, I'd have more time. But I don't treat teaching as a job. It is a great honor to be with a major university. I like the academic side, the access to libraries."

The recipient of a 2001 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for his innovative works, Sheng is a composer who, the foundation writes, "bridges East and West, lyrical and dissonant styles, and historical and contemporary themes to create elegant compositions with a distinctive signature."

There are, he says, only three reasons to teach.

The first is to learn from the students. "It's great to be around young people and to learn what they are up to. Since teaching requires organizing one's thoughts, that's a second asset," Sheng says. "You are looking at other people's works, perhaps through serving on a dissertation committee. You have to concentrate on both the intellectual and practical or theoretical side of the music."

The third motivation for teaching is an obligation owed to his own teachers—to pass on to his students that which he learned from his teachers. "I was fortunate to study with many great teachers," Sheng says. One of those teachers was Leonard Bernstein with whom he was associated for about five years. "Bernstein was foremost a teacher," Sheng says.

Sheng shares the compositions he is working on with his students. That includes his most recent opera, "Madame Mao," which will premiere at the Santa Fe Opera July 26. "The students are audacious," Sheng says. "I care more about what my students think about my work than I do about what my colleagues think. Students tell the truth. I talked to my students about my approach to 'Madame Mao,' including the story, musical and dramatic approach to the opera. They told me, 'That's cool or that's not cool'."
Sheng's most recent opera, "Madame Mao," will premiere at the Santa Fe Opera July 26.

Such respect is returned by his students, who have commented that Sheng "bends his pedagogical approach to fit the student he's working with. He has a high level of expectation, and he's very happy when his students meet that. He has a big thing about how everything has to be held up to the level of Brahms."

An example of the close student-teacher relationship Sheng engenders occurred in the winter of 2000-01. Taking advantage of the freedom offered by the MacArthur award, Sheng took a yearlong sabbatical, even though he missed the student contact. The feeling was mutual. One snowy night while Sheng was working late at his home in the Michigan countryside, a group of his students appeared at the door with a cake. Supposedly they just happened to be in the neighborhood.

Sheng gave a staged reading of the first act of "Madame Mao" last year at U-M's Festival of New Works, a developmental theater designed to give creative artists a means to obtain audience feedback for new screenplays, plays and musicals. The opera, in the format of Chinese opera with some dancing, chronicles the life of China's Jiang Qing, otherwise known as Madame Mao, a naïve young actress who, after marrying communist ruler Mao Zedong, came to have great political clout. "We found out from that audience what works and what doesn't," Sheng says. "The first act ended in a place that was not logical, so we had to move two more scenes into that act. It was a rough run-through, but it was good to get audience reaction."

Whether "Madame Mao" is a success or not, Sheng says he has made up his mind: "I will not write more than one opera every 10 years."

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