“At first, I fell hard,” Sheng says with a laugh. “And then my wife got me these padded pants, padded shorts, specifically for that reason.” While he’s not what he’d call “good,” Sheng reports he's finally managing to stay upright.
It’s been a year of reflection for the composer. When Sheng looks at his daughter, a child on the cusp of adolescence, he is reminded of himself at that age—the tastes he savored, the books he loved, the friends he made. And most importantly, the vow he took that changed his life.
“My theory is that everybody goes through puberty, and that’s the moment that you’ve kind of made up your mind about what kind of job you will have,” Sheng explains.
At age 13, he didn’t know he wanted be a professional musician exactly. But he knew for certain that he never wanted to forget the bliss he felt listening to music.
So he made himself a promise. “I said I would never forget how great it is to enjoy music,” he says. “It’s a gift, just being able to enjoy it.”
As he tries to explain the nourishment, the sustenance music offers him, inevitably his mind turns to cooking. It’s been another one of the interests he’s been able to explore in his newly free time.
“I’m constantly making the analogy of food and music and culture,” he says. During the quarantine, he’s honed his cooking, preparing the dishes he remembers from his upbringing in Shanghai—dishes he can’t quite find in the U.S.
Just this afternoon, he’s whipped up a bowl of Yān Dǔ Xiān (腌笃鲜), a simmering broth filled with pork, tofu, fresh bamboo shoots, and a kind of ham Sheng compares to Italy’s prosciutto.
It’s very niche, Sheng says. Very Shanghai. And lately, he’s seen the similar desires manifesting in his work.
“With the piece I'm working on, for example, I’ll think, ‘Oh, this is really very Chinese, very old Chinese peasant music, that kind of style.’ I don’t know why I was drawn to that, but somehow I went more and more towards that,” Sheng says.
He pauses to speculate: “Maybe that's just the one incident. Maybe it has something to do with the luxury of time.”
Sheng is no stranger to the thorny question of identity. He’s had to navigate that question throughout his career. But it’s not something that guides his creative process, he says. “Certainly in the last few decades, I stopped thinking about whether this is Chinese or Western or what.”
When it comes to understanding his work, Sheng is less concerned with the categories—and more intrigued with the mingling of influences, of inspirations, of flavors. The ingredients of his life are kneaded into his work. But you don’t need to be able to identify each one to appreciate his music.
“It’s like food,” he explains. “When you taste something good from different styles of cuisine, if it's well-made, if it’s delicate, then you know. You can tell how it was made. Maybe you can't really tell what exactly it might be or what kind of style it is. But if it’s good, you can tell.”
Born in 1955 in Shanghai, Sheng was raised with music. It was simply the middle class thing to do. His mother started him on the piano when he was four, and his father was an amateur singer of Chinese opera.
It was not love at first sight for Sheng and his piano. He remembers his friends could just go outside and play soccer, while he was cooped up practicing. Looking back, he’s grateful to his parents for the lessons. But it took him a while to understand the deep attachment he was forming with music.
Even when China’s Cultural Revolution rendered classical music taboo, Sheng didn’t realize how much playing piano meant to him. The rise of China’s Communist Party coincided with a purge of all things bourgeois, and soon officials were arriving at Sheng’s family home. They seized the furniture. They seized the piano. But Sheng didn’t instantly mourn its loss.
“I wasn’t terribly missing it, so to speak, because that is something I still took for granted,” he says. “Only after it was taken away for about a year, then I heard piano music over the radio. All of a sudden I realized: I didn’t have the chance to play the piano anymore. Now I wanted to play, but I didn’t have a piano. So that’s the moment that it was traumatic.”
That was also the moment Sheng started to dedicate himself to music. He would break into the junior high to practice on the school piano in secret. And when he faced the prospect of being sent into the countryside—as part of a nationwide campaign to reeducate young, urban “bourgeoisie” through farm labor—he auditioned with the state to be an artist instead.
Sheng landed a position—all the way on the other side of the country, in a province called Qinghai on the Tibetan plateau. He was assigned to a folk music and dance troupe.
It took him 48 hours by train to cross the country. He watched with horror as the landscape outside the train window transformed from greenery of Shanghai to the yellows and grays of northern China. “At the time we were supposed to be there for the rest of our lives. It was not just to go for a few years. The realization of that was tough.”
The only way he could escape was by studying. He would set aside several hours each day to practice the piano or learn English. His friends in Qinghai thought he was crazy. “Why are you learning English?” they’d ask
It was also during that time that Sheng came across a banned book: the 18th-century Chinese masterpiece Dream of the Red Chamber. He remembers reading it quickly, finishing it in about a week. “I was attracted to the story, but I wasn’t terribly fascinated by it,” he laughs.
In Qinghai, just as he sampled the local cuisine, Sheng started to savor the sounds of the province. Qinghai was home to many different ethnic groups: the Tu people, the Sala, the Hui, and countless more. Sheng sampled the smorgasbord of sound there, including the “wild” styles of folk music too impolite to sing at home. It was flirtatious. It was erotic. But most of all, it was everywhere.
“Folk music is quite popular. Not just popular. It’s overwhelming,” Sheng remembers. It would become one of the influences he stirs into his work. “I was just fascinated.”
Sheng compares his interest in folk music to his interest in food. Not all of his friends had the same adventurous appetite. “It's like you go to a place and you never taste the local food. People would think, ‘Oh, I don't like the flavor of the way they cook.’ But to me, I found that it was tasty. And so I would keep trying.”
Eventually, after seven years in Qinghai, Sheng was allowed to leave to study at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. From there, he joined his family in moving to New York City.
His first impressions of the city? New York pizza was “terrible.” So was Coca-Cola. It was nothing like what he expected from an American city. For one, the diversity was beyond anything he’d ever experienced. You could stumble into a Chinese community one moment and an Iranian community the next.
“You don’t know where you are. You kind of get lost, and you could be anybody,” Sheng explains. He continued his studies, but money was tight. His first job was as an orderly in a nursing home, working weekends in between his studies. “I remember I earned $8 an hour,” he says.
All the while, his star was on the rise. He met the great 20th-century composer Leonard Bernstein. He won competitions. But while he considers himself lucky to have had the education he did, Sheng sometimes wonders what might have been had he remained in China. When he left, the prospects for a classical musician in China seemed grim. Now, China has developed into a bustling economy to rival the world’s largest. It too is an artistic hub now.
“I feel kind of guilty, because I wasn’t part of it when I could have done something for the country,” he muses.
Sheng has been thinking a lot lately about an artist’s responsibility. Is it enough to aim to create something original? Sheng isn’t so sure. For the moment, as a composer, he sees his mission as creating emotional connections. Put simply, he wants his art to touch the audience.
“You go to a movie. You know that it's a made-up story and these are hired actors and everything is fake. But you are caught up in the story. You cry, you laugh with the characters, you care about the characters, who have nothing to do with your life. Why? Aren't you stupid to do that?” Sheng asks.
“When you think about it, the whole thing is kind of silly. However, that tells you what great art can do. It can move and make you forget about your existence even for a few seconds.”
That was his goal in adapting Dream of the Red Chamber, his 2016 world premiere at San Francisco Opera. Ever since his Qinghai days, Sheng had kept copies of the original book, leaving it on his bedside table so he could read and re-read it.
“Every time you discover something new,” he says. “It’s kind of an encyclopedia for us to peek through society, especially the aristocratic society over 300 years ago.”
But when former San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley approached him about reimagining the book as an opera, Sheng wasn’t interested in an encyclopedic retelling. Dream of the Red Chamber had a pantheon of over 500 characters, too much for even the longest opera. Sheng aimed for something different, something simpler, something more visceral.
“I said, I want to write a touching opera,” he recalls. “Every night I wanted at least one in the audience to cry. And I said, ‘If I could do that, I think we are successful, if you can make one audience cry.’ And it did. Every night, people came to me with red eyes.”
Since the opera’s premiere, Sheng has made slight changes: Act I has been shortened, the lovers’ duo lengthened. It’s all part of Sheng’s process of revising.
“I write opera with a main aria first for each character. That defines the character of each—their personalities through music,” he says. From there, he trims, adjusts, tweaks, sometimes scrapping a character’s aria entirely. He estimates he has removed about 20 minutes of music.
That was the case for Lady Wang, one of the most conflicted characters in the opera. The mother of the romantic hero, she tricks her son into a marriage to save the family fortune, only to find her own plans foiled. The first aria Sheng wrote for her articulated thoughts he felt were best said elsewhere, so he cut it.
It’s like a recipe: Sheng adjusts the mixture until it’s just right. He figures the sharper the emotional impact, the more likely Dream of the Red Chamber may one day become standard repertoire.
“Gradually, the world population will all enjoy these so-called fine arts. Because they are good,” he says, returning to his food analogy. “Once you taste the three-starred Michelin food, then you realize McDonald’s is just not good anymore.”
But most people don’t get a chance to “taste” arts like opera. Sheng admits it. There are cultural barriers to consider: money and education, for instance. But gradually, as more people experience classical music, Sheng hopes it can become “everybody’s art”—open to “whoever can appreciate it.”
As the world reemerges from pandemic-related shutdowns, Sheng says he’s not looking to simply pick up where he left off. He sees this moment as an opportunity for the arts to both “restart and reset,” to imagine a new kind of future. And that starts with taking risks—and skating, perhaps, into the unknown.