SINGING: I am the wife of Mao Zedong I loved my husband...
JEFFREY BROWN: In Santa Fe recently, the opening of a new opera, "Madame Mao." She was, at one time, the most powerful and feared woman in China, but early in the opera, she stands accused as a traitor?
SINGING: Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Confess! Confess! Honor the name of Chairman Mao!
JEFFREY BROWN: Jiang Ching-- the real woman known as Madame Mao-- was in fact tried in Beijing in 1976, one of the so-called "Gang of Four" who tried and failed to take power after the death of her husband, Mao Zedong. Born into poverty near shanghai in 1914, she was beautiful and ambitious. An actress already twice married when she met the older, married revolutionary leader Mao in 1938. In the 1960s she emerged as a leader of the Cultural Revolution. Western thought and culture were purged, millions were resettled, imprisoned, or killed. China was convulsed in chaos, and Madame Mao was at its heart.
BRIGHT SHENG, Compose: In her life, you have betrayal, lust, sex, politics, and revenge, and repression, and murder. Everything you can name, you know? So the melodrama of opera.
JEFFREY BROWN: The composer of "Madame Mao" the opera, is 47- year-old, Chinese-born bright Sheng. Growing up in shanghai, his early piano lessons helped him escape the fate of many young people in the cities who were sent off for reeducation as a rural farmers during the Cultural Revolution. Musicians were needed to play the propaganda performances beloved of Madame Mao. Sheng joined a folk group in western China, near the Tibet border.
BRIGHT SHENG: The career choice during the cultural revolution for a young person was farming or in how biz, so to speak. I was fortunate because I took some piano lessons when I was a very small child. I never thought I would be a musician. By the time the Cultural Revolution was over and the universities reopened to take students, the only thing I knew was music.
JEFFREY BROWN: So in a real sense, if not for Madame Mao, you might never have become a composer.
BRIGHT SHENG: That's right. It's kind of fate, I think.
JEFFREY BROWN: Bright Sheng came to the united states in 1982, studied with Leonard Bernstein and others, and has become a much-in-demand composer and conductor. "Madame Mao," commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera Company, is his first full-length opera. So this is quite a place, isn't it?
BRIGHT SHENG: Yes, this is kind of a miracle. Because you know 50 some years ago, John Crosby, who was a conductor, opera conductor mostly, and he was standing on top of this mountain said, "wouldn't it be wonderful to have an opera house here." And here it was.
JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, the Santa Fe opera must be one of the most spectacular theaters anywhere. 7,500 feet above sea level, the opera house is surrounded by two mountain ranges in northern New Mexico. Open on its sides with sculptural shields to protect against high winds. Patrons taking their seats on the night of our visit could look through the stage at a breathtaking sunset. ( Vocalizing ) Bright Sheng and his collaborator, librettist Colin Graham, created two Madame Mao roles. Soprano Anna Christie reaches the highest notes as the young, still hopeful Jiang. ( Vocalizing ) Mezzo Robyn Redman plays Madame Mao's embittered, older self. Redman let us watch her own transformation from a blonde and very friendly American singer, to a dark, demonic, Chinese tyrant.
ROBYNNE REDMON, Mezzo-Soprano: Here we go. Here's the full transformation. There.
JEFFREY BROWN: At times, the two Madame Mao's appear together-- the older woman watching scenes from her troubled life.
MAN: I have changed my mind.
JEFFREY BROWN: By their own admission, Sheng and Colin Graham have made up many details to suit their dramatic tale. They play up a series of betrayals by men-- including Mao-- that lead to Madame Mao's bitterness and vengeance.
ROBYNNE REDMON: It is the most fun. You know, I sing all the standard repertoire for my voice type, but never do you get to stab or shoot, smother, strangle someone with your bare hands. It's... it's fantastic, because I'm all about peace and spreading the love, you know. And so to get into that inner demon thing is wonderful.
JEFFREY BROWN: So are you envious that she gets to do all that?
ANN CHRISTY, Soprano: Well, I get to do a very little bit of that, too. I do both sides of it. What's interesting for me is the transformation, and keeping her human and... I bet the audience doesn't really want to sympathize with such a woman who became so evil, and who killed so many people and was the cause of so much sorrow. But in a way you can almost see how she became that way.
JEFFREY BROWN: In the opera, Bright Sheng has written separate interludes of both romantic waltz music and Chinese opera. More often, western and Asian mix in the same musical passage, such as a beautiful lullaby sung by the two Madame Mao's.
BRIGHT SHENG: It's based on the first few measures of... actually a Kazakhstan folk song, but it became very popular in China. This is the theme and when she remembers her mother used to sing to her, and it goes something like this. ( Singing ) Part of me is Chinese, part of me is American, and there's nothing I can do about it. About ten years ago I stopped thinking, when I compose, what is Chinese element, what is western? And I stopped thinking that way. I just wrote whatever I think as an audience member, myself. I put myself as an audience member, I watching... I was listening or watching the opera or listening to the concert. I would get excited, I think it's a neat idea. And whatever comes out, it's kind of hybrid, but I think it filters through me as a person who had studied both cultures for over 30 years. I came in my mid-20's so I was a full-grown adult, and so in a way I was 100 percent Chinese. And I have been living here for over 20 years, so in a way I'm also 100 percent American.
JEFFREY BROWN: Critics have offered mixed reviews of "Madame Mao." One called it: "One of the most important and courageous operas of the last 25 years." Another said it is "disappointing, despite a few rich musical moments." It's not clear whether a wider audience will get to decide for itself. Richard Gaddes is the general director of the Santa Fe Opera, a company that's built a reputation for presenting new operas. But, he says, it's always risky.
RICHARD GADDES: It's risky with the audience because although audiences are now beginning to accept contemporary operas more readily, in the past they have not. And, of course, it's risky in terms of fundraising because they're, contemporary operas are expensive.
SCENE: And so we'll see who's right. The world or I.
JEFFREY BROWN: The real Madame Mao hung herself in a prison cell in 1991. "Madame Mao" the opera, ends with her two incarnations, young and old, staring up at her lifeless body. ( Laughs ) ( cheers and applause )