Conservatory’s Zhou Long wins Pulitzer Prize for opera

Zhou Long, UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance Research Professor of Music Composition, just received a Pulitzer Prize for “Madame White Snake,” which premiered on Feb. 26, 2010 by Opera Boston at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. To read a New York Times article about the 2011 Pulitizer Prize recipients, click here.

Through “Madame White Snake,” Professor Zhou bridges an ancient Chinese story to Western culture. The opera’s western orchestra is complemented by three Chinese melodic instruments: a bamboo flute, clay flute and the erhu, a two-stringed violin. The opera also features traditional Chinese percussion instruments, such as gongs, drums and blocks.

“As a young boy living at the height of the Cultural Revolution, Zhou Long was sent to a state farm where he toiled for five years,” said Peter Witte, dean of the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance. “Today, he received one of America’s greatest awards for excellence in the arts. ‘Madame White Snake’ blends colors and cultures together in a very personal way. Like Virgil Thomson, the last KC composer to win a Pulitzer, Zhou Long’s music is honest and of the earth. We look forward to bringing the premiere of ‘Madame White Snake’ to Kansas City very soon.”

In October of 2010, “Madame White Snake” also traveled to the Beijing Music Festival. This year, Zhou said he would like to collaborate with Kansas City Symphony, Lyric Opera of Kansas City and UMKC to show the opera at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

Chinese Connections

Zhou Long, UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance Research Professor of Music Composition, just received a Pulitzer Prize for his opera, "Madame White Snake".

Zhou Long, UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance Research Professor of Music Composition, just received a Pulitzer Prize for his opera, “Madame White Snake”.

Zhou’s connection to China runs much deeper than “Madame White Snake,” though.

Born in 1953 to an artistic family in Beijing, Zhou grew up listening to Italian opera arias and taking piano lessons. After turning 16, the leaders of the Cultural Revolution sent him to a state farm in Heilongjiang, a rural province in northeast China. For the next five years, he drove a tractor, grew beans and wheat and carried 200 pounds of produce each day. To improve morale, he taught himself to play revolutionary songs — the only music allowed — on an accordion.

After Zhou injured his back, he was sent to Zhangjiakou — another small city outside Beijing — where he became the conductor and arranger of a Chinese folk song and dance troupe.

Once the Revolution ended, Zhou rushed back to Beijing and applied to Beijing’s Central Conservatory. He was one of 33 students admitted out of 1,000 applicants, and graduated with the now-legendary “Class of 1978” — the first class to be admitted since the end of the Cultural Revolution. At the Beijing Central Conservatory, he also met his future wife, Chen Yi — a composer who now serves as the UMKC Conservatory’s Cravens/Millsap/Missouri Distinguished Professor.

After they both graduated, the two moved to New York to complete graduate studies at Columbia University. At Columbia, he began to combine atonal sounds with the Chinese tonal sounds. Today, he is known for producing music that blends Western and Eastern sounds.

Student Connections

At the UMKC Conservatory, Zhou helps students create connections to the musical world. He gave Ryan Jesperson — a third-year doctoral student in music composition — the opportunity to help transcribe the opera score for “Madame White Snake”.

As Jesperson watched the work develop, he was amazed at Zhou’s ability to create subtle variations using transposition and orchestration. He learned how to add orchestral sounds without overpowering the vocal music, and these lessons helped him refine and enrich his own work.

In 2010 — after working on the opera score for more than a year — Jesperson traveled to Boston to watch a rehearsal of “Madame White Snake”.

“The singers constantly applauded Professor Zhou’s work and would often break into praise in the middle of scenes at the majesty of his work,” Jesperson said. “Professor Zhou is an extremely hard-working composer, and I have strived to imitate his work ethic in my own professional activities. He and Chen Yi are tireless advocates for their students and humble giants of the modern music scene.”

Media Coverage

Composer Zhou Long wins Pulitzer Prize for ‘Madame White Snake’ – Los Angeles Times

Zhou Long Wins Music Pulitzer For Fairy Tale Opera – NPR

“Madame White Snake” – 99.5 WBGH

Opera Boston production wins Pulitzer – The Boston Globe

UMKC professor Zhou Long wins 2011 Pulitzer Prize for music – Kansas City Star

Zhou Long’s Madame White Snake Awarded 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Music – Opera News

From Farm Accordion to Pulitzer Prize: Zhou Long’s Big Win – WQXR 105.9FM

“Madame White Snake”:

“The Birth of Madame White Snake”:

Madame White Snake “…the final step…”:

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