My best excuse for not having written a novel in the last three years is that I wrote libretto for an opera, "The Bonesetter's Daughter," which, by coincidence, is the name of a book I wrote. The composer is Stewart Wallace, who's done a number of operas, including Harvey Milk. We met at Yaddo the year that the cops were chasing OJ down the freeway (that's how he and I remember when it was). David Gockley at San Francisco Opera commissioned this opera, so we're talking about the real deal, and not some community church program with your child in a bit par.
I know you've already got this image in your mind that this is some Chinesey thing where the singers are in white face, wearing brocade robes and kilts, and caterwauling in falsetto. Banish that from your brain. This is an American opera. I am an American girl. Stewart, well, he's a New Yorker. The tone of the opera is surreal and perhaps akin to The Cook, the Thief, the Wife, and her Lover. If you hated that film, then it's not like that at all. It's better, thank God!
For one thing, we have a Chinese rock star --the first to do heavy metal in China. He plays the mad monk. And he leads the marching dead--or rather the leaping dead--acrobats who follow their coffin home. There's insanity, a mother who acts out a delusion that she witnessed seeing OJ killing his wife. As in the tradition of Hamlet, there is a mournful ghost with a blackened hole for a mouth, the result of suicide by fire. There is also rape and near-incest by a coffinmaker, and the requisite murder of same, done by a series of cuts: to the face, the chest, and then lower still, ending with the loss of what is euphemistically referred to among some Chinese guys as "Little Brother." I think you know him in your country as Johnson or Dick. Too much information--or not enough?
The costumes are swoon-worthy, surreal, sexy. Han Feng has designed for Anthony Minghella and also the recent production of Madama Butterfly performed in London and at the Met. The set is pure theater, something akin to a giant flexible iphone touch screen with movable cubes and a fantastical set of perches. I had imagined this in such ordinary ways, and this is visually stunning, with a sense of magic in how scenes unfold.
And grandest magic of all is the music-- soaring, absolutely American, with elements of an emotional past based in China. There's the percussion and winds of a village funeral Stewart attended in China, turned into the wild jazzy riffing (but precisely composed!) of a monk on a suona (a double-reeded oboe-like instrument). There's the percussive glissandi voice of french horns that is part of Stewart's music world. There's a sweet celesta, the instrument I requested for a lullaby. The music is not one of those screechy operas where all the notes sound like a 78 with a bent needle in the track. This one has "tunes" atop comedy, tragedy, irony, and heartache. It has lyrical beauty. Ive already heard the principals sing much of their roles. Tears in my eyes. And they are great actors as well. They make me feel the libretto is inadequate. And, by the way, I've always disliked opera that requires you to read along to know what's happening. This opera is in English. But you don't need to keep track of every word. The story is transparent, one you can watch and feel. That, to me, was a major goal of mine as librettist. Show don't tell.
Some people already think our opera is worthy of serious attention. There's a book coming out --Chronicle Books is publishing--Luck! Fate! Chance! --on the making of the opera. And there will also be a PBS documentary. I just did some footage in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Interviews in the NY Times Magazine, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Opera News, 7 x 7, San Francisco, O at Home, etc. Events at the Asian Art Museum, Dominican College, City Arts & Lectures, Book Passage. And we'll be on All Things Considered, West Coast Live, and Michael Krasny's Forum.
All that I've said so far is preamble to: I would love it if you could come.
You can view some of the PBS documentary here, and you can find more information at www.SFOpera.com. The world premiere is Saturday, September 13, 2008 at San Francisco Opera. I will be at all performances. Other dates are these:
Tuesday, Sept 16 at 8 pm
Saturday Sept 20 at 2 pm
Thursday Sept 25 at 7:30 pm
Sunday Sept 28 at 2 pm
Tuesday Sept 30 at 7:30 pm
Friday October 3 at 8 pm
They range in price from $15 to $235, depending on the day and the seating. Even if you've never seen opera and are not so sure you would enjoy it, how can you lose by paying $15? The price of popcorn and a movie, or two bad-for-you meals at MacDonald's, or a parking ticket in Reno! Opera will expand your soul, not your waistline.
See you there!
Causes Amy Tan Supports
Self Help for the Elderly
Squaw Valley Community of Writers
San Francisco Symphony
San Francisco Opera