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Madam Mao


Santa Fe Production July 2003

Santa Fe Production July 2003

Madame Mao

Opera in two acts (2003)
Libretto by Colin Graham for an opera by Bright Sheng on the character of the late Madame Mao
Commissioned by Santa Fe Opera
Synopsis by Bright Sheng
Program notes by Bright Sheng

Duration: 120 minutes
Cast: (13), SATB chorus
Orchestra: (2222/4331/timp,perc[4]/hp/str)

Program Note

The story of Madame Mao (Jiang Ching) has all the intensity of a dramatic thriller but, in spite of its authentic history, it also has the more usual operatic dimensions of love, lust, repression and characters that are extreme in their emotions and actions.

The story depends on two elements: repression and revenge–one breeds the other. It tells how Jiang Ching changes from a naive young actress (who truly loved and idolized Mao and his communist ideals) to an evil driven and vengeful murderer. As her hopes die one after the other, each indignity she suffers from Mao and the Party serves to fan the revenge she extorts when, finally, her unrequited love turns into ill-willed, political retaliation against them all.

The opera presents a challenge to present convincingly the various events in (Madame Mao’s) life over the space of forty years as it moves fluidly from one event to another, despite leaps in real time–a complicated story in a short theater piece. The story line therefore has to be simple and clear while it must be understandable and emotionally engaging for the audience, whether or not they are familiar with recent Chinese history.

It is dramatically satisfying to divide the role into two singers– as the young, idealistic Jiang II (high soprano) interacts throughout the opera with her older, sinister and more cynical self, Jiang I (dramatic mezzo). This also assists in the fluidity of the passages of time. IN a way, Madame Mao is also a feminist who fights single-handedly in the midst of a powerful and male-dominated society. And it is ironic as Jiang struggles all her life to avoid the same fate as Zhizen, Mao’s first wife, who goes mad and is put away by Mao in the middle of Act II. Doubly ironic since Jiang was virtually insane by the time she was able to exact her revenge.

—Bright Sheng

Cast of characters

Jiang Ching I (Madame Mao), dramatic Mezzo-soprano

Jiang China II (Madame Mao in her 20s), High Lyric-soprano

also plays
Nora (in Act I)
also sings
In Chinese Opera scenes: Mu Guiying (in Act II)


ZiZheng, Mao's previous wife, Full Lyric-soprano

also sings
An Actress (in Act I)
also sings
In Chinese Opera scenes: Yang Paifeng (in Act II)


Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Communist Party of China, Verdi Baritone

The Actor, (see below) High Tenor

also sings
In Chinese Opera scenes: Emperor Gao (in Act II)


Another man (see below)

The Accusers: (8 soloists, 2 sopranos, 2 tenors, 2 baritones and 2 basses, double in many other parts, including The Committee and Victims in Act II. They also include Another Man and The Actress. Sometimes these appear as Madame Mao's accusers as at the Trial, sometimes as bitter memories of her past.


Chorus: minimum 32, equally divided

Dancers: 8 (4 men 4 women)

NOTE: In Act I the time goes backwards from the Death of Madame Mao towards her first meeting with Mao, via her trial, her time as a young actress and her existence as a chattel of men. In Act II the time goes forward from her first encounter with Mao to her death, via her sexual ascendancy over Mao, her revenge against her enemies in the Cultural Revolution, the death of Mao and her unsuccessful attempt to succeed him, and the fiasco of her trial.