LSM-ONLINE-LOGO2JPG.jpg (4855 bytes)


Back Issues
LSM Issues
LSV Issues

Throat Doctor
Concert Reviews
CD Critics
Books Reviews
PDF Files


About LSM
LSM News
Guest Book
Contact Us
Site Search
Web Search

La Scena Musicale Online Reviews and News / Critiques et Nouvelles


Visit La Scena Musicale Online Reviews. [Index] Critiques de La Scena Musicale Online

Iron Road a Riveting Theatrical Experience

By Joseph So / April 24, 2001

April 21, 2001, Elgin Theatre, Toronto
Iron Road (world premiere)
Composer: Chan Ka Nin
Libretto: Mark Brownell
Translations: George K. Wong
Music Director: Wayne Strongman
Director: Tom diamond
Set & Costume Designer: Dany Lyne
Lighting Designer: Bonnie Beecher

Lai Gwan: Zhu Ge Zeng, soprano
Bookman: Zheng Zhou, baritone
James Nichol: Stuart Howe
Ama: Grace Chan
Sir John A. MacDonald: Curtis Sullivan
Ah Charn: Henry Li
Ah Lum: Jovanni Sy
Donald smith: Martin Houtman

Some ten years in the making, the world premiere of a new Chinese-Canadian opera took place at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto on Friday, the beginning of an eight-performance run. Composed by Chan Ka Nin, who is on the music faculty of the University of Toronto, with libretto by Mark Brownell, it deals with an aspect of Canadian history long omitted in standard history books: the building of the western section of the Canadian Pacific Railway by 15,000 Chinese labourers, many of them gave their lives in the process.

Though epic in scope, the libretto focuses on the human level. Lai Gwan, a Cantonese girl, carries out the wishes of Ama, her dying mother, to go to the New World to look for her father, who had left their village in southern China to seek his fortune in the “Golden Mountain”. Disguised as a young man, Lai Gwan works in the railroad camp with other Chinese labourers, where she befriends and falls in love with the foreman, Nichol. Two and a half hours later, the ill-starred lovers are forever separated and Lai Gwan takes on the traditional task of sanctifying the remains of those who died and releasing their spirits.

In between, the opera deals with many weighty issues related to the meeting of east and west – racism, exploitation of the working class, filial piety, mixed-race romance, cultural beliefs in the after-life etc. At the heart of the work is the clash of eastern and western values, pitting the romance between Lai Gwan and Nichol against the wishes of her dead mother. The music is an interesting mix of east and west, sung in Cantonese and English, with surtitles in both languages when Cantonese is sung, and English only the rest of the time. George Wong has done a masterful job with the colloquial Cantonese translation. In addition, dancers are used to great dramatic effect, especially during the dream sequences and the pageantry surrounding the completion of the railroad.

It would be less than truthful to say the composer breaks new ground musically with this work. The score is melodically inspired and beautifully written, with a mixture of traditional Chinese-style tunes played on authentic instruments - particularly prominent is the Erhu, and the decidedly western musical idioms. Of the latter, one detects influences of Broadway, jazz, even a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan thrown into the mix, in addition to the contemporary operatic sensibilities. To these ears, Act 2 is stronger musically, more “through-composed” and more conventionally operatic. Detractors may argue whether Iron Road is really an opera, as opposed to a “musical”, in the style of the more musically substantial Broadway shows. But then, such arguments persist on as venerable a work as Porgy and Bess, so Iron Road is in good company! What it does represent is a work that is enormously accessible to opera lovers as well as those exposed to the medium for the first time. And it deals with a subject matter that elicits an emotional response from the audience.

There are other controversies as well. Some in the Chinese Canadian community object to the characterization of the Lai Gwan’s father, the Bookman, who is more or less the villain of the story. From the standpoint of plot development, the characterization is entirely justified – if nothing else, it makes for effective theatre. From the perspective of character development, it is important to remember that early Chinese migrants were survivors. Bookman’s exploiting of his fellow countrymen might not win the hearts of a contemporary Chinese Canadian audience, but it was likely the reality of the time.

Another objection heard in the Chinese community is the interracial romance, and the depiction of Nichol, the Foreman, as the “good guy”. On a personal level and as a Chinese Canadian, I do not find this problematic. But then I am not one to demonstrate against Miss Saigon or Madama Butterfly. Iron Road is not a political opera. It is a human story. Despite one’s best intentions, it is futile to legislate attraction, desire, and love. Iron Road is a work of fiction and should be treated as such. It is not meant to be a historical documentation of Chinese in Canada.

The four principals are all talented singing actors. They all have young, fresh voices that are suitable for the small and acoustically friendly Elgin Theatre. As Lai Gwan, Zhu Ge Zeng warms up quickly and displays a nice clear soprano, while Stuart Howe (Nichol) uses his light tenor to good advantage. Grace Chan (Ama) impresses with her rich mezzo-soprano, and kudos to her for being able to sing and fly through the air at the same time! Zheng Zhou (Bookman) is suitably sinister as the “villain” of the piece. All secondary roles are capably taken.

An unqualified triumph is the production itself. The sets and costumes by Dany Lyne is absolutely wonderful, and Bonnie Beecher has done a superb job with the lighting. Tom Diamond, no stranger to Toronto opera audiences, shows a good understanding of Chinese culture in his direction. Choreographer Xing Bang Fu uses the dancers to great effect. Conductor Wayne Strongman shows a true sensitivity and affinity with the score. This is a show that deserves to be seen and heard. The good news is that it will be taped for radio broadcast next season. The production will be revised in Vancouver and Ottawa in future seasons, with Asian performances – in Hong Kong and Singapore, in the planning stages.

Remaining performances on April 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, at 8 pm, at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto. Phone 416-872-5555.

Visit La Scena Musicale Online Reviews. [Index] Critiques de La Scena Musicale Online

(c) La Scena Musicale 2000