P.D. Soros Fellowship for New Americans


Lei Liang: Composing Our Relationship with Guns

  • inheritance collaboration 1

    Clock-wise, from upper left: Lei Liang, Susan Narucki, Matt Donovan, Ligia Bouton


Music composition and activism may not always go hand-in-hand, but for Lei Liang (2002 Fellow), who left China after the Tiananmen Square tragedy, the two are nearly synonymous. Liang, a 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist, has composed music about human trafficking, undocumented immigrants and justice; and soon, gun violence will be added to that list.

In January, Liang and three collaborators won a $50,000 grant from Creative Capital to bring an opera about guns in the United States to life. The multimedia chamber opera, entitled “Inheritance,” will use the biography of Sarah Winchester, heir to Winchester Repeating Arms, to explore the country’s complex relationship with guns.

Liang is not the only recipient of The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans to win a Creative Capital grant. Mariam Ghani (2001 Fellow), a visual artist, was a 2015 Creative Capital recipient for her film, “What we left unfinished.”  Ghani’s film focuses on the Afghan Communism era (1978-1991) through the lens of Afghan filmmakers and their works from the period.  

Jeffrey Soros, president of the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans Board of Trustees and a member of the Creative Capital Board of Trustees, commented “It is exciting and gratifying when artists the Fellowship has selected are recognized by other organizations. As it happens, in these cases, I know the other institution very well, and happily confirm the high standards that it too upholds, including the standards of creativity and persistence that the Fellowship values.”

In addition to Winchester’s life, Liang’s opera will explore guns throughout the history of the United States, including 19th-century massacres of Native Americans and contemporary school shootings. Liang and his collaborators wrote, “This is a work that hopes to raise probing questions about complicity, atonement, and gun violence in this country.”

“I have a young son attending an elementary school. We experience the anxiety that every parent who has children at school experiences every day.”


Researching her story, Liang and his collaborators described Winchester as, “an eccentric widow self-imprisoned in her labyrinth-like home seeking refuge from the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles.”

Asked about his own relationship to guns, Liang said, “I have a young son attending an elementary school. We experience the anxiety that every parent who has children at school experiences every day.”

Liang is working with Susan Narucki, Ligia Bouton and Matt Donovan to make “Inheritance” a full multimedia experience. Narucki, a Grammy-Award winning soprano, and Liang first worked together on “Cuatro Corridos,” an opera about the US-Mexican border. They both wanted to use music to highlight and respond to social issues.

Liang met Matt Donovan and Ligia Bouton, who are married, while Liang and Donovan were both Fellows at the American Academy in Rome in 2011-12. Having young children brought them together. “We spent many delightful hours watching our sons playing together while sharing ideas about our own works. Our friendship flourished and our exchanges continued beyond our residency at the American Academy,” Liang said.

Knowing that he wanted to work with Narucki on another project, Liang thought Donovan would be just the right person to tackle the libretto. “When Matt told us the biography of Sarah Winchester, Susan and I immediately felt that we found the topic that we all are passionate about,” Liang explained.

The Creative Capital grant will support the production and performance costs of “Inheritance,” which will premier in 2018 at UC San Diego where Liang is a professor of music composition. 

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