WATCH: Western musical mixed with Peking opera — a Mu Lan story you have never seen before

Jonyca Jaio performs as Mu Lan in "The Ballad of Mu Lan." (Ingrid Huang/MEDILL)

By Ingrid Huang
Medill Reports

“The Ballad of Mu Lan” is a mix of Eastern and Western culture. Integrating Western classical music with Jing Ju, or Peking opera, director Alvin Chan created a musical about the Chinese heroine Mu Lan and her story of joining the army instead of her father. The play is produced by Northwestern University and Imagine U, and ran Feb. 24 through March 6 on the Evanston campus. Find out more on what Jonyca Jiao (Mu Lan) and Chan have to say about the aesthetics, the production and its all-female cast.

Video transcript:

Jonyca Jiao: Mu Lan has always been a hero for me.

(Jiao singing on stage)

Jiao: She is not only a very, very empowered female figure, but she is a Chinese female figure. We had learned about her since we were in elementary school.

(Jiao singing on stage)

Jiao: She wants to break the traditions. She wants to break the boundary. She is brave, she’s courageous and confident in her own way. I guess she dares to do things that people don’t expect her to do.

(Jiao singing on stage)

Jiao: I dreamed about playing her, that I can totally find a connection to her as well. She also inspires me.

(Jiao singing on stage)

Alvin Chan: Mu Lan takes her father’s place in the army and succeeds. But then coming into this production, I thought, “How can we do it differently?” Before this production, it had always been one girl and the rest guys. In casting this play, I wanted to cast it all female.

Speaker 3 on stage: Please don’t kill me!

Chan: With everything that’s happened throughout the pandemic, the rise in Asian hate crimes, especially hate crimes toward women, I think telling this story in this way has said something very important to how we tell this story, who gets to tell this story. As I was writing it, I was thinking about the choreography …

Cast: (Singing).

Chan: … and I was thinking about the songs, and I was thinking about how Jing Ju would go into this. How can I put parts of Jing Ju melody in with classical instrumentation? One of the first songs I wrote was a song called “We Need More Men” because the Chinese army is being defeated, and they’re like, “Oh no, we need more men.” Taking that melody, and just being like … (humming)

Cast: (singing “We Need More Men”)

Chan: Seeing how that could fit both into a Jing Ju song, but also into a Western song.

Cast: (singing)

Jiao: In Jing Ju, because other characters are all male characters, they have to do this: It’s the hand shape for men. But for females, it’s different. When I come on stage, I do this.

Jiao: (singing)

Jiao: At the climax, I cut off my hair. I take off my girly robe, pink robe, and then take off my dress. Then I have these soldier clothes underneath. It’s like a point of return. Like, “Oh, Mu Lan is going. Mu Lan has decided that she is going to this war.” Sometimes it’s just that dialogues don’t have the power or magic that songs do. For instance, when I’m talking about if I had been born a boy, it could have been a whole long monologue. But then rather than just speaking it, a song can help the audience to connect with Mu Lan more and also build up the emotions, build up the story plot.

Ingrid Huang is a Social Justice graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Instagram at @ingrid_xih.