The story of “XinSheng” concerns a tangled love triangle between Andrei, a boxer, Fan, his coach, and Anne, a surgeon. After Andrei barely survives an underground boxing match, Fan pressures Anne to treat him using an experimental drug, “Xinsheng,” which will save his life but at a grievous cost. Set in a quasi-dystopian world of messy relationships, cutthroat competition, and medical malpractice, the opera portrays the clash of personal feelings with professional obligations, the sacrifices demanded by love, and the paradoxical intersections of intimacy and distance.
As the opera proceeds and we learn more about the complicated histories of its characters, it grows increasingly difficult to know whether Fan’s desire to save Andrei is motivated by affection, professional duty, or her own financial gain. At the same time, as the stakes of Anne’s decision to administer or withhold the drug are revealed, it becomes unclear whether her final choice represents a gesture of love or of revenge. Ultimately, perhaps it is both—an act of love that is itself a form of violence.
The music mimics this emotional ambivalence by immersing the audience in thick, multilayered and shape-shifting textures. In its close-miked pants, gasps, and snarls of anger, the opera emphasizes that intimacy can be distancing: the closer the opera gets to its characters, the more impersonal and uncomfortable it becomes.
Like its inconclusive narrative, the music of “Xinsheng” veers between extremes, yet never quite settles into either. Its opening minutes, which depict Andrei’s near-fatal fight, are visceral, bringing fluttering and growling instrumental textures together with the sounds of panting and gasping to create the sound of a body in crisis. Throughout the fight sequence, the music remains unrelentingly violent, full of bass drum pulses that evoke the sound of Andrei’s racing heartbeat and shrieking cello glissandos that suggest the cries of the onlookers.
Later, as the drama of Andrei’s fight is supplanted by the drama of his treatment, the music becomes more distant and ethereal. As surgeon Anne stands over Andrei’s body, her reflections on the debt she owes his coach Fan—and indeed, the debt Fan owes Anne—are expressed in a beautiful cascade of descending vocal lines, accompanied by celestial synthesizer textures and sparse zither dissonances. As she slowly comes to her decision, the musical texture grows denser and thicker, culminating in an almost unbearable moment of intensity before collapsing, seemingly in exhaustion, into a field of faint, hollow harmonies punctuated by bright pinpoints of sound. Depending on how we understand Anne’s choice, this eerie wash of texture could be heard as a reprieve from the violence endured earlier or as its apotheosis.