When most of us in the West think of Chinese culture, the word "epic" springs to mind. It's embarrassing, really: You might have hoped that this hackneyed view of the People's Republic, fueled by picture postcards of the Great Wall snaking toward a misty horizon and crackly television news footage depicting infinite multitudes saluting Chairman Mao in pristine synchronicity, would have given way to a more nuanced view of Chinese civilization. After all, there's very little worthy of awe in the mountains of throwaway Chinese-made consumer products that have become a part of everyday life in this country over the past few decades. But thanks to movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the eye-popping entertainment spectacular that greeted millions of viewers at the start of this summer's Beijing Olympics, stereotypes doggedly persist.
Refreshingly, Bay Area novelist Amy Tan and composer Stewart Wallace's jeweled casket of a new opera, The Bonesetter's Daughter, presents a more interesting view of Chinese culture. Unlike other recent operatic forays into chinoiserie, most notably Tan Dun's sprawling historical saga The First Emperor in 2006, Wallace and Tan's world premiere collaboration at San Francisco Opera favors an experience that's wholly intimate. As Wallace rightly told me: "The story transcends history and politics. It's personal and emotional."
The sweeping quality of Tan's original 2001 novel chronicling an American-born Chinese woman's relationship with her aging immigrant mother and ghostly Chinese grandmother is mostly absent from this musical adaptation. As in the novel, the opera's narrative moves backward from 1990s San Francisco to rural China of the 1930s and World War II–era Hong Kong. But from Wallace's quietly simmering-shimmering score to Tan's colloquial libretto, this operatic Bonesetter's Daughter bears more resemblance to a portrait miniature than a panoramic landscape.
The opera's inherent sense of closeness isn't surprising. From a literary perspective, Tan wrote her novel as a way to explore her complicated relationship with her mother, who was losing her memory. The opera goes even further in mining Tan's autobiography. For example, in the opera, the mother character, LuLing, raves about being an eyewitness to the O.J. Simpson murders; Tan's mother also experienced such delusions. Wallace's music is similarly self-revelatory. The opera's subject echoes the composer's longstanding preoccupation with the theme of excavating the past — an idea he previously explored in such works as his 1995 opera Harvey Milk. It is also the product of several years of total immersion in Chinese musical traditions.
The opera begins with a cacophonous, stereophonic fanfare from two suona (reed trumpet) players from each side of the auditorium's first balcony. But the music and atmosphere soon turn in on themselves. In Wallace's intense, flowing prologue, sparkling pizzicato strings pull against the undertow of three undulating mezzo-soprano voices. The main characters in the story — Ruth, LuLing, and ghostly grandmother Precious Auntie — step forward in the swirling fog of "a timeless void" to intone the opening line of Tan's novel ("These are the things I know are true"). This mantra appears several times during the course of the opera, reminding us of the power of the interior world.
The emphasis on the personal also comes across in Wallace's vocal writing. The composer created his music with the specific performers in mind. Their vocal lines project both the unique qualities of their voices as well as their characters' personalities. As the most "Western" character, Zheng Cao's Ruth sings in an overtly Romantic style. The expressiveness of her arias, especially the one about her relationship with her mother during a tragicomic scene in a Chinese restaurant, perfectly shows off Cao's lyrical qualities. Meanwhile, Wallace's use of Ning Liang's resonant lower range in her role as LuLing captures the intensity of Liang's voice and the character's melodramatic nature. Wallace's use of Chinese-style "speech-singing" techniques for Precious Auntie both suits kunju opera star Qian Yi's traditional Chinese opera background and effectively conveys the otherworldly status of the ghostly character.
Tan's libretto similarly focuses on telling a personal story. Unlike the book, which follows a straightforward trajectory into the past, the opera meanders back and forth through time, allowing incidents that seem to stem from the depths of Tan's psyche to float to the surface. At one point, we're in a San Francisco restaurant listening to characters babble about mink coats and how shellfish gives them hives; next, we're in an inkmaking workshop in 1930s rural China watching the fiendish coffinmaker Chang have his wicked way with LuLing. The dreamlike quality of the storytelling makes the plot maddeningly hard to follow, not least because Cao, rather than Liang, plays LuLing as a young woman in the Chinese scenes. But the random quality also effectively heightens the production's focus on the subconscious.
Chen Shi-Zheng's mise-en-scène also eschews the epic. The director uses the main scenic element — a giant three-dimensional fiberglass wall tricked out to resemble a dragon's skeleton — to quirky effect as a canvas for video designer Leigh Haas' projections. In the restaurant scene, for instance, a projection of a lurid aquarium filled with giant goldfish hilariously gives way to a massive marauding shark when LuLing sings about O.J. Simpson. On a more somber note, a video depicting a paper boat seen at first in close-up, then in middle-distance, and finally as a receding speck on the horizon accompanies Ruth's bittersweet aria from Act 2 about writing letters on behalf of lonely wartime wives to their absent husbands. Unfortunately, Chen gets a little too personal at times: The full moon that becomes a blood-red O when the coffinmaker sings about "filling" LuLing's "hole" leaves little to the imagination, as does an earlier scene in which Chang pisses in his coffin. At times like this, intimacy falls prey to poor taste.
In short, the epic has about as much to do with this adaptation of The Bonesetter's Daughter as cheese has to do with Chinese cuisine. By the final curtain, that boring picture postcard of the Great Wall has receded from our mind's eye and been replaced by something more interesting: the image of an elderly Chinese lady rambling about O.J. Simpson in a San Francisco restaurant.