The metaphor on which the installation opera Paradise Interrupted is based is a powerful one: a woman wanders through a garden searching for her ideal lover and finds her own self-realization instead. According to the extensive program notes by director and visual artist Jennifer Wen Ma, the opera draws from “Eve’s search for utopia after being expelled from the Garden of Eden,” as well as the Chinese drama The Peony Pavilion, in which a woman is awakened from a dream of love so profound that she dies pining for it. Using these archetypal texts along with the central visual conceit of a black garden that grows out nothing and later returns to nothing, Ma, along with composer Huang Ruo, has created an ambitious show which is as much an extended piece of performance art as it is an opera (hence the term “installation opera”).
In fact Paradise Interrupted is so ambitious and contains so many exciting concepts, that it was perhaps inevitable that, when taken out of the realm of ideas and translated onto the stage, it fell just slightly short of its promise.
In a production like this, however, that is not a criticism. This is a courageous, unique, and complicated piece of theater, and Friday night was the show’s world premiere. The mere fact that the multitude of effects all worked as they were supposed to should be cause for celebration.
It’s difficult to summarize Paradise Interrupted, but here goes: the opera opens with the Woman, sung by Chinese opera superstar Qian Yi, having a dream of pleasure so intense that when she awakens, she is struck by the loneliness of her real life. She follows the Wind, who beckons her through a gate into a garden, where a tree grows out of the stage, symbolizing the beginning of her self-actualization. The previously discussed black garden now appears, and she encounters various manifestations of her desires, represented both by incredible digital effects and by the four male singers with whom she shares the stage. Toward the end, a white flower appears and she enters into it, only to realize that it — really, her desire — has imprisoned her. She breaks free of the flower and chooses to leave the garden behind, appearing afterward on the empty stage in a shimmery, angelic dress with a massive skirt stained black. As she rises up on a moving platform, the black skirt grows, symbolizing the pool of ink with which she can now paint any world she likes.
One of the most striking elements of this opera is the incredible range of digital effects that Ma has incorporated: the backdrop of the stage is a massive screen onto which are projected rolling clouds, sparkling firefly-like lights, and abstract effects that look like rain or fog. There’s one particularly impressive one, projected onto the stage floor right in front of the Woman, in which a cloud of fireflies takes the shape of a man, then dissipates.
Then, of course, there’s the garden. Working from the same concept as a pop-up book, the garden is made of three sections of laser-cut paper. It encompasses a variety of plant-like shapes, and is truly massive, requiring several stagehands to pull each section out from its flat, resting position into its standing, “pop-up” shape. The front parts of the garden were especially lovely, as the paper created a cascading effect that made it look like the plants were almost pouring themselves onto the stage. And although the blackness was the entire point of this visual spectacle, it did make it harder to appreciate the intricate details of the paper; the pieces tended to blend together.
It must be said that it was a little difficult to imagine how the Woman might be drawn into this garden — it was beautiful, yes, but hardly inviting and lush, as the libretto claimed. Perhaps it simply required a more complete suspension of disbelief than I was able to muster. Similarly, the tree and the flower aesthetically left a little to be desired. Both are technically stunning, especially the tree, which is a series of black lines that are pulled up through the stage — it does literally appear out of nowhere, and at the end, it disappears, pulled back into the stage. But the tree and the flower both look somewhat simplistic, not quite a match for the intricacies of the garden.
The singing and music, however, were both perfectly delivered. The orchestra, consisting of both Western and Chinese instruments, was exceptional, and together Qian and the four male singers — she sang in the Chinese operatic style, and the men in the Western style — created a surreal, otherworldly sound that completely embodied the dream-like world the Woman was wandering through. At about hour and 20 minutes, this is a relatively short opera — although it did feel quite slow because there’s little true action happening.
If you’re looking for a fun evening of theater, you might be disappointed, but if you can sit back and appreciate the artistic risks being taken, as well as let yourself enter into Ma’s all-encompassing vision, a performance of Paradise Interrupted will be time well spent.