Dream of the Red Chamber: World Premiere

An Effort to Turn Chinese Classic Into Western Opera

Written by:
Janos Gereben
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Ethnic support for opera in multi-ethnic San Francisco is a subject worth scholarly research, which is certainly not being offered here. These are only a few broad observations, leading to a point to be made soon.

Italians created and supported for decades San Francisco Opera itself; the relatively small Armenian community raised over a million dollars in 2001 for the U.S. premiere of “Arshak II”; and I hope the tiny Hungarian group ’round these parts won’t even try to bring our national opera, Erkel’s “Bánk bán,” to the city. Arshak was enough.**

But what of the city’s largest subgroup of Asian Americans, making up 40% of the population, those of Chinese descent, representing 21% of San Francisco’s 800,000 residents? Discounting such matters as the Yellow River Piano Concerto on one hand, and John Adams’ “Nixon in China” on the other, our attention is focused on the 2008 “Bonesetter’s Daughter,” a San Francisco Opera bicultural spectacle with Amy Tan’s text and Stewart Wallace’s music.

That “Chinese American offering” had limited audience success (building to a sold-out house at the end of the run), and its $1.5 million budget was covered mostly from John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn’s $40 million contribution to the company. Reflecting on those days, when the commission of Bright Sheng’s “Dream of the Red Chamber” was announced last year at the press conference a company administrator mused off-camera if support from the Chinese American community “may not be in its DNA.”

And so we come to the point and the Sept. 10 world premiere of the opera, with that concern apparently disproved: Asian Americans (presumably mostly of Chinese descent) filled about half the audience in the War Memorial, where all 3,200 seats sold out for some time. The project-initiating Minneapolis-based Chinese Heritage Foundation was well represented, along with artists and audience members from far and wide. As to the circa $3 million budget this time, improvement in participation there is also possible, although the credited major contributors, besides the Chinese Heritage Foundation, are once again the Gunns, the Edmund W. and Jeannik Méquet Littlefield Fund, United Airlines, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

An important accomplishment even before the curtain went up Saturday night was the widespread introduction of Cao Xuequin’s great 18th century novel to American audiences through a dozen advance articles from coast to coast. It had to be clear to everyone interested in the opera that the novel’s 700 characters (400 important ones) were reduced to seven (7), and the English translation’s 2,339 pages in five volumes to basically a single story (many other plot elements only hinted at) and a three-hour performance, including one intermission.

And yet, beyond all the ethnic-cultural-literary-historical aspects, there is the opera itself to consider, a music drama written mostly in the Western idiom – using some Chinese instruments, but nothing reminiscent beyond that of Peking Opera. Bright Sheng’s score serves as a soundtrack to the action, not always well synchronized, neither pentatonic nor fully tonal; even with a few brief beautiful passages, it’s difficult to imagine how it could stand on its own.

Sheng’s writing for the voice and George Manahan’s vigorous conducting combined for a challenge to the singers, and it is to the credit of an excellent cast that solos and duets – with the aid of English and Chinese supertitles – came through during most of the evening. Not so for the SFO Chorus, used to bracket the opera with appearances as a windblown phalanx of hooded beggars at the beginning and end of the work: what they sang could be understood only by reading the supertitles.

Yijie Shi made an impressive debut as Bao Yu, the sole male hero of the opera: a lyric tenor with a healthy ping, his diction was second to none. Pureum Jo sang Dai Yu, the Juliet to the tenor’s Romeo, both effective and affecting as the heroine transformed from a flower descending from heaven to unite with Bao Yu, the human form of the stone which lived in symbiosis with her before their descent. This exemplifies the impossible challenge to the libretto, written by Sheng and David Henry Hwang: be faithful to the novel, make dramatic sense, and keep the audience in suspense; none of those appeared fully realized. A major missed dramatic-musical opportunity was not making Dai Yu’s aria about fallen petals more memorable and haunting – it is a pivotal, deeply moving scene, but without the music to remember.

Irene Roberts, who sang Carmen during the summer season, appeared as Bao Chai, Bao Yu’s cousin he is to marry for political and economic reasons, and she sang brilliantly… what there was to sing as the character is given short shrift, very much in the background. Qiulin Zhang as the good matriarch Granny Jia and Adler Fellow Hyiona Kim as Lady Wang, Bao Yu’s scheming mother, both make the most of their generous opportunity to shine. Merola Program alumna Karen Chia-ling Ho is impressive as the Imperial Concubine, whose downfall (a substantial story made into a mere sidebar here) prompts a domino effect of drama and tragedy.

Stan Lai’s direction on Tim Yip’s intriguing sets (and his occasionally Hollywood-Chinese costumes) serve the opera well, and are not responsible for the lack of connection and impact many in the audience may experience. The 90-minute first act is mostly an introducton to characters and the plot; the hour-long second act has lots of action, but these scenes seem disconnected and lacking dramatic punch.

Randall Nakano is the narrator, a non-singing role added by Sheng and Hwang, the character revealing his true identity at the end, probably to nobody’s surprise.

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