China’s great­est novel has a new fo­rum: opera

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By LIA ZHU in San Fran­cisco li­azhu@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

“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.”

LIA ZHU / CHINA DAILY

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.

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