It opens with a blare of Chinese instruments that sound like a cross between an oboe and a trumpet rehearsing for the Last Judgment, and the answering racket of a corps of percussion that sound like the rattling of the bones of the dead in hell – instruments that will score and rend, charge and magnify, and frequently levitate the following two and a half hours into a heaven unknown until recently in Western lands.
At the opening of The Bonesetter's Daughter, they signal the evocation onstage of a magical space, a “timeless void,” inhabited by creatures remembered and imagined, including water and fire dragons, depicted by acrobats on a flying trapeze swooping above the stage behind a fog scrim. From the misty vapor resulting from the dragons’ mingled breaths emerge the opera’s main characters: Ruth Young Kamen, her mother Lu-Ling Liu, and her grandmother Precious Auntie, whose stories and fates will intertwine over the following hours like the coils of a dragon.
The opera, based on Amy Tan’s novel, premiered in San Francisco recently – most appropriately, since it is set partly in the city. It is a remarkable work – a striking amalgam of Western and Chinese styles of music and theater, illuminating a simple but powerful story about the emotional distance a young woman traverses in moving from China to America, and her own past that, even in the transition to the “New World,” with its half-deceptive promises of new beginnings, cannot be shaken.
The libretto moves from pathos to humor, to moments of the profoundest poetry and statements of a starkly persuasive wisdom. There is hardly a slack or confounding moment on stage from beginning to end: an assertion that can be made for few modern operas of whatever merit. Amy Tan herself wrote the libretto, in close collaboration with composer Stewart Wallace. It was written and composed almost simultaneously, roughly one scene at a time, with ideas added to the mix from artistic director David Gockley and stage director Chen Shi-Zheng: the resulting work, with its combination of a simple and involving story, a brilliantly tonic and often beautiful score, and extravagantly imaginative staging (the use of projections and acrobatics alone would have been enough to make this a uniquely fascinating production) is such a success that it might suggest a method for creating opera in the future: simply add a brilliant stage director to an open-minded producer with theatrical flair to a daring composer to a lively writer – and make sure they get along like a pajama party – then blend, stir, bake, and serve.
The central story is about the mother and the hard life in China that eventually drove her to move – or rather, flee – to America, where she never feels entirely at home and piles many of the burdens she brought from China onto the shoulders of her often bewildered and resentful American daughter. The music dramatizing the story interests me particularly: Wallace has found a way to integrate the Chinese and Western instruments and styles almost seamlessly into a sound world of unique sonority, piercing beauty, and raucous splendor. He also uses the classical application of Chinese singing idioms and techniques, including kunju, to English in ways that are strikingly natural, even elegant, and at one point, at least, profoundly, and unexpectedly, moving.
Modern opera is not to everybody’s liking. To get all that is to be had from The Bonesetter’s Daughter (and it will need more than one hearing, at least by this hearer, to plumb its many depths and intricate beauties), it helps to have an ear that does not require an anodyne musical language or postmodern evasions. Between magic and myth, supreme artifice and a sober confrontation with “the things I know are true,” this is an opera for grown-ups; it rewards with an adult’s nourishment - fantasy made real, the real summed up in a marvel crusted with dried tears.