UMKC professor Zhou Long wins 2011 Pulitzer Prize for music

Zhou Long, a professor of composition at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance, has won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for music.

Zhou was honored for "Madame White Snake," which the Boston Opera premiered Feb. 26, 2010, at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. The piece is a deeply expressive opera that draws on a Chinese folk tale to blend the musical traditions of the East and the West.

The libretto was by Cerise Lim Jacobs.

Steve Paul, The Kansas City Star's arts editor, wrote this about Zhou a few days before “Madame White Snake” had its premiere:

To hear Zhou Long tell it, the making of an opera requires a lot of give and take.

For one thing, there’s the teamwork of the main collaborators -- the librettist, the composer, the producers. But there’s an inner struggle, too, as the music evolves and as the composer -- that would be Zhou -- finds his way for the first time wading into the stream of a long tradition.

Over the last three years, Kansas City-based Zhou has gone deep into those waters, and now his first opera is about to get its premiere in Boston. Titled "Madame White Snake" and based on a much-beloved Chinese myth, the work will run Feb. 26-March 2 at Opera Boston, and it’s also scheduled for the star treatment next fall in Beijing.

Like his wife, Chen Yi, Zhou teaches at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and has become one of a small handful of leading Chinese-American composers. He’s known for his complex and deftly layered chamber music, but in working with librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs, Zhou knew that his main mission here was to rein in his abstract impulses and focus on supporting the songs.

"Whether it’s tonal or atonal, you have to show the beauty of the human voice," Zhou said recently in an interview at his home. "That’s my goal. And I think I reached that."

As a native of Beijing, Zhou was well aware of the legend of Madame White Snake. Every Chinese person knows it, he said. The story involves a reptile turned woman who goes in search of love among mortals.

The production will be the first operatic version in English of the tale.

For Opera Boston, a small company that emphasizes rarely produced works, "Madame White Snake" certainly is the biggest show ever mounted on its stage. The budget, $1 million over the last three years, reached a new height for the company.

"It’s huge," said Carole Charnow, Opera Boston’s general manager. "It’s the first time a main-stage opera has been commissioned in Boston since 1990. It’s also the first time the Beijing Music Festival has ever collaborated with an American opera company, and it’s also our first main-stage commission.

"It’s a very, very big achievement."

Just a few days ago, Charnow sat through the first vocal run-through of the opera. All the singers had assembled -- four principals and their understudies, plus a 16-member adult chorus and 20 elite members of the Boston Children’s Chorus.

"We all sat poised for the conductor to begin the prologue of this completely virgin work," Charnow said by phone recently. "He started and the first singer began and we went on a two-hour journey of sumptuous music. There’s great drama and passion, some vocal fireworks. It was exciting, thrilling music."

Charnow said the score combined a Western vernacular within an Asian framework, which is typical of Zhou’s music. Even with just a pianist accompanying the singers during the run-through, she said, the music was moving and strong.

"I’ve never heard anything quite like it before," she said. "It’s elegant. It’s theatrical. It’s multi-textured."

The collaboration between Jacobs and Zhou seemed destined to work. Originally, a Boston friend approached Zhou and Chen about working on an opera. They weren’t sure if they had the time but thought they could do something small. The friend put them with Jacobs, and the three met for the first time in New York.

In the introductory small talk they found common ground: Each had been born in 1953 -- which, in the Chinese calendar, was a Year of the Snake. Bingo: Jacobs, a lawyer turned writer in Brookline, Mass., had already drafted a libretto for "Madame White Snake."

Chen begged off to work on her own projects, and Zhou took up the task of collaborating with Jacobs, line by line, to expand, revise and shape the structure and drama of the libretto as he wrote the score.

The work has a brief narrative prologue and an epilogue framing four acts. Each act, representing one of the four seasons, is introduced with an a cappella rendering by the children’s chorus of a T’ang Dynasty poem that Zhou had translated into English. It sounds like a lot, but the opera clocks in at only 108 minutes, Zhou said.

"Nobody wanted a lengthy opera," he said. "When I go to the opera house, I usually leave after an hour and a half."

Heading the cast of "Madame White Snake" is soprano Ying Huang, an increasingly sought-after performer. (This season alone she has sung Mozart in Hong Kong and Handel’s "Semele" in Brussels.)

In another bit of operatic rarity, the role of Xiao Qing, or Little Green, a rival snake turned human who is Madame White’s servant, will be sung by the male soprano Michael Maniaci. Zhou had imagined the role for a mezzo-soprano but, prompted by an old Chinese tradition that prohibited female performers on the stage, Chen suggested using a male singer in the role.

The Opera Boston team liked the idea.

"Cerise thought it would be interesting to have this gender play," Charnow said. "Michael is one of the only male sopranos in the world. It’s very unusual and very unique and fun to have him in it."

Because of the limited space in the pit of the historic Cutler Majestic Theater, Zhou was limited to a 34-piece orchestra. Included are traditional Western instruments as well as a couple of Chinese flutes and a two-stringed erhu, or bowed Chinese fiddle. The score will expand for the Beijing production in October.

Zhou got used to doing more with less during China’s Cultural Revolution of the early 1970s when he worked as a musician arranging for a countryside song and dance troupe.

During that period, which suppressed anything but traditional Chinese fare and folk music, Zhou arranged operatic works that used little more than a few fiddle players. "I would orchestrate it into a big sound," he said.

In 1977, as the Cultural Revolution ended, the Beijing Conservatory reopened and Zhou landed in its first class. That’s where he met Chen. Both wound up in New York in the 1980s, completing advanced degrees at Columbia University. Chen joined the UMKC faculty in 1998, and Zhou followed a few years later.

"As a teacher," said David McIntire, composer and member of the NewEar contemporary chamber ensemble in Kansas City, "he has exacting standards and a remarkable ability to see and hear the true implications of a student’s sketches. I often found that he knew more fully what I was trying to write than I did."

Of Zhou’s music, McIntire added, "What struck me most was the way he had been able to absorb traditional Chinese music, and then transform it into something new and powerful -- similar to what Bartok did with Hungarian and Transylvanian folk music. As a composer, I think his technique is absolutely outstanding and his ear for instrumental color is without peer. His musical style is certainly challenging, but I’ve observed firsthand that it connects with listeners in a very real and visceral way."

When the American Academy of Arts and Letters honored him in 2003, it stated: "Zhou Long has found a plausible, rigorous, and legitimate way of consolidating compositional methods and techniques that allow him to express brilliantly both his experiences as a composer of Western music and his considerable knowledge of his native China."

Although Zhou had written vocal music before, he is now happy to have his first opera under his belt. And he is satisfied with the course it took.

Listeners tend to be attracted to new operas by the music, not necessarily the story, Zhou said. "They want to know: Is it avant-garde, is it more traditional or melodic?"

Zhou believes he has struck a balance between a contemporary sound and tradition.

"You don’t want a new opera to sound like Puccini," he said. "Puccini’s great. You just cannot do better than that. And you don’t want it to sound like Broadway or a musical. ... So naturally for me, I didn’t want to make it too complex or too deep. But you have to make sure there’s something memorable -- some melody lines.

"It’s not simple music," he said, "but it’s not extreme."