South Africa: Olivier With a Twist – Composer Bright Sheng and the Mysteries of Race in America

Composer and professor of music Bright Sheng found himself right in the centre of conflicts over race and identity — and blackface — when he tried to teach the mysteries of turning Shakespearean drama into opera.

It is not often that a screening of a classic film for a university undergraduate classroom gets breathless coverage in major newspapers, with increasingly furious commentary from people watching the ensuing controversy.

At first blush, such an activity would certainly have seemed to be innocent enough. In this case, a session of renowned composer and music professor Bright Sheng’s music composition class at the University of Michigan was supposed to be an exploration of the complexities of taking a straight dramatic work — a stage play — and turning it into a powerful opera.

Sheng carries a CV that includes one of only a small number of contemporary operas including The Dream of the Red Chamber, (listen to discussion on the opera here and a workshop performance of the work here) that have been performed around the world. His output also includes a roster of other compositions that get appreciative hearings in many concert halls, along with other honours and awards (including one of…

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