China’s greatest novel has a new forum: opera
“Goodbye to our innocent world. Goodbye to our naïve thought. Goodbye, Bao Yu,” a despairing Dai Yu sings in a sad farewell aria to her lover Bao Yu as she realizes it’s hopeless to fight the old traditions.
In billowy, translucent costumes, singing in English, the characters of Dream of the Red Chamber, China’s greatest literary work, for the first time come alive on a 21st century opera stage at the San Francisco Opera House.
The 18th-century Chinese novel is comparable to the plays of Shakespeare. Often compared with Romeo and Juliet, the novel centers on a love triangle between hero Bao Yu, his beautiful cousin Dai Yu, and his future wife, another beautiful cousin named Bao Chai.
The story has been adapted countless times into film, drama, ballet and twice into popular TV series in China. But it’s the first time this Chinese masterpiece will find a new audience in the form of Western opera.
The project was first initiated by the Chinese Heritage Foundation Friends of Minnesota with a mission to “showcase the best in Chinese literature and encourage innovation in the arts”.
Commissioned by the San Francisco Opera, the project assembled a “dream team” composed by Bright Sheng, Chinese-American composer, conductor and pianist; David Henry Hwang, playwright and winner of the 1988 Tony Award for Best Play for his M. Butterfly; Stan Lai, an award-winning playwright and director; and Tim Yip, Academy Award-winning art director and designer.
But the adapation of the epic story into a two-play opera was first deemed a “mission impossible” by Hwang, as the novel is twice as long as Tolstoy’s War and Peace and has more than 400 characters.
“In opera, you have to boil down the material to one major element,” said Sheng, a MacArthur Fellowship recipient. He said, the team, after long conversations, decided to render the opera as a love story and kept the political intrigue as the historical backdrop.
Co-librettists David Henry Hwang and Bright Sheng have done an impressive job in distilling the story, and the love triangle of Bao Yu, Dai Yu
and Bao Chai is great operatic material, regardless of cultural background, said San Francisco Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock.
Dream of the Red Chamber is an autobiographical novel by the 18th century writer Cao Xueqin. It is considered the most important and popular novel in the history of Chinese literature and still widely read throughout the Chinese-speaking world.
The reason why it continues to cast its spell on today’s Chinese readers is it combines the qualities of Jane Austen with the grand sweep of a novel such as Vanity Fair or the works of Balzac, said John Minford, a translator whose English version was published by Penguin.
“Written just before the onset of China’s 19th-century decline, Stone (the novel) captures brilliantly the ‘glory that was China’, and the knife edge on which that glory balanced. This is what makes it such essential reading today,” he said in a 2011 article.
However, the essential reading is barely known in the West. An obsession of the economic statistics and a focus on the political relations were blamed for the neglect of work.
“It’s a good story,” said a student named Peiling. Her favorite character is Dai Yu, because “she’s really emotional” and “she doesn’t take things lightly”.
“At some point I will (read the novel),” she said, “It’s a bit long, though.”
Dai Yu and Bao Yu, as played by Chinese tenor Yijie Shi (left) and South Korean soprano Pureum Jo, recite poems together, leading them to the discovery that they are soulmates.