“Of course, facing criticism for my misjudgment as a professor here is nothing like the experience that many Chinese professors faced during the Cultural Revolution,” he wrote. “But it feels uncomfortable that we live in an era where people can attempt to destroy the career and reputation of others with public denunciation. I am not too old to learn, and this mistake has taught me much.”
Professor Sheng, who joined the Michigan faculty in 1995 and holds the title Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor, the highest rank on the faculty, was born in 1955 in Shanghai. As a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, to avoid being sent to a farm to be “re-educated,” he auditioned for an officially sanctioned folk music ensemble, and was sent to Qinghai province, a remote area near the Tibetan border, according to a university biography.
After the universities reopened in 1976, he got a degree in composition from Shanghai University, and in 1982, he moved to the United States, eventually earning a doctorate at Columbia University.
His work, which includes an acclaimed 2016 opera based on the 18th-century Chinese literary classic “Dream of the Red Chamber,” blends elements of Eastern and Western music. “When someone asks me if I consider myself a Chinese or American composer, I say, in the most humble way, ‘100 percent both,’” he said earlier this year.
The Olivier film was controversial even when it was new. Writing in The New York Times, the critic Bosley Crowther expressed shock that Olivier “plays Othello in blackface,” noting his “wig of kinky black hair,” his lips “smeared and thickened with a startling raspberry red” and his exaggerated accent, which he described as reminiscent of “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” (To “the sensitive American viewer,” Crowther wrote, Olivier looked like someone in a “minstrel show.”)
Professor Sheng, in his emailed response to questions from The Times, said that the purpose of the class had been to show how Verdi had adapted Shakespeare’s play into an opera, and that he had chosen the Olivier film simply because it was “one of the most faithful to Shakespeare.” He also said that he had not seen the makeup as an attempt to mock Black people, but as part of a long tradition — one that has persisted in opera — which he said valued the “music quality of the singers” over physical resemblance.
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