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Opera Boston production wins Pulitzer

Composer Zhou Long’s “Madame White Snake’’ — his first opera — was called “deeply expressive’’ in the citation for the Pulitzer Prize. Composer Zhou Long’s “Madame White Snake’’ — his first opera — was called “deeply expressive’’ in the citation for the Pulitzer Prize. (Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff/ File)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / April 19, 2011

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Composer Zhou Long won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Music yesterday for “Madame White Snake,’’ the first opera commissioned by Opera Boston — and the first one he has written.

The prize is “really something heavyweight to me . . . I feel I have been recognized,’’ Zhou said by phone from his home in Kansas City, Mo. “I have been working very hard to blend the East and the West for years.’’

For Opera Boston, the Pulitzer “helps endorse our mission to promote and present the unusual instead of the traditional and standard,’’ said Gil Rose , the company’s artistic director. “It’s a real endorsement of what we’re trying to do here.’’

Opera Boston gave the world premiere of “Madame White Snake’’ on Feb. 26, 2010, at the Cutler Majestic Theatre with three performances (and one preview) conducted by Rose in a production directed by Robert Woodruff.

The Pulitzer citation described the work as “a deeply expressive opera that draws on a Chinese folk tale to blend the musical traditions of the East and the West.’’

First-time librettist and retired Boston attorney Cerise Lim Jacobs, a Brookline resident, wrote the text based on the Chinese legend about a white snake demon who transforms into a beautiful woman so she can experience love. She brought it to Opera Boston, and Rose recommended Zhou as the composer.

“We wanted a Chinese composer and we considered several people,’’ Rose said. “I felt Zhou was ready to write an opera. He had a strong dramatic sense to his music and he had written several vocal pieces, so he could work with text. . . . What else do you need?’’

“Zhou’s score is often quite inventive in its fusing of Eastern and Western traditions, and there is some arresting instrumental and vocal writing,’’ the Globe’s Jeremy Eichler wrote in his review of the premiere.

Zhou, 57, is visiting professor of composition at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance. He was born into an artistic family in Beijing but exiled to a rural farm during the Cultural Revolution. He came to the United States in 1985 on a fellowship to Columbia University. A US citizen since 1999, Zhou is married to composer-violinist Chen Yi.

In the production, soprano Ying Huang starred as Madame White Snake and Peter Tantsits as Xu Xian, the love of her life — although their marriage ends in tragedy.

The opera was cocommissioned with the Beijing Music Festival Arts Foundation and was performed in China last fall with the same four main singers but with Chinese musicians, conductors, and chorus.

Zhou said he was taking a nap yesterday afternoon when his wife woke him to say that calls were coming in and something was happening. “We checked the Internet and it looks like it’s real,’’ Zhou said with a laugh, calling the win “a total surprise.’’

Rose was in rehearsal for Opera Boston’s upcoming “Maria Padilla’’ at the Boston Center for the Arts yesterday and had switched his phone to vibrate, but “so many texts came in at one point that I had to look.’’ He was taken by surprise but was able to reach Zhou to congratulate him.

“It’s great for him and I’m so happy for him and for Opera Boston’s first commission to win the Pulitzer Prize,’’ said Rose. As for fund-raising, he said, “it couldn’t hurt.’’

The five-member Pulitzer jury that awarded the prize included composer William Banfield, a professor at Berklee College of Music.

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com