New operas are not perhaps as rare as sometimes made out to be, but it is nevertheless hard to underestimate the significance of Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber appearing at the Hong Kong Arts Festival so soon after its premiere at the San Francisco opera last Autumn.
This San Francisco-Hong Kong co-production is an adaption of the classical eighteenth-century Chinese novel, with an English-language libretto by playwright David Henry Hwang and the composer. Those fortunate enough to secure a ticket for one of the entirely sold-out performances of this example of contemporary East-West cultural fusion, were therefore witnessing a piece of musical history of the sort that rarely happens in Hong Kong.
The sprawling novel (often compared to War & Peace) with hundreds of characters has been condensed to a libretto with fewer than a dozen and which focuses on the love triangle between the sensitive Bao Yu, the unworldly scion of an aristocratic family whose best days seem behind it, and his two cousins Dai Yu and Bao Chai. Both are beautiful, but Bao Yu finds his soulmate in the poetic and ethereal Dai Yu. Bao Chai, however, is the better political and financial match and Bao Yu’s mother maneuvers to have them married. It ends badly, although not quite as a traditional tragedy.
The performances and production were just about all one could wish for. The production itself was visually arresting and cleverly designed to accommodate the multiple scene changes. The singers, led by the relative veteran Chinese tenor Shi Yijie—well-known for his elegant belcanto performances in Europe—and relative newcomer soprano Pureum Jo, brought beauty, enthusiasm and pathos to their roles. The Hong Kong Philharmonic under conductor Muhai Tang played to the standard everyone has come to expect.
But, while noting all the times that critics have been wrong about new operas in the past, I must admit to having been left bemused by Dream of the Red Chamber. Any consideration of the work itself must, at least implicitly, deal with such questions as “What is opera?”, “What should modern opera be?” and if we are to stick to the Western tradition, as this opera does, “What is ‘Chinese’ (as opposed to Italian, French, German or some other kind of) opera?”
If the key objective were to adapt this—or any—classic Chinese tale to an international musical idiom, traditional Western opera was not the only possible choice, especially if it were to be sung in English. Contemporary musical theatre in general, for example, seems to be in rude health. Hits can run years and years while each year sees new works in several languages and styles, some of which embody considerable artistic and musical ambition. Long complex novels seem no inherent impediment to adaptation. Last year, for example, saw—in addition to the premiere of of Dream of the Red Chamber—the Broadway debut of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, a so-called “electro-pop opera” rendition of (a similarly streamlined and excerpted) War & Peace—opera in that it is sung through. It is “popular”—Josh Groban opened; it is easy to be sniffy about musical theatre, but until the twentieth-century, “opera” was also considered popular entertainment too. Things change.
Composers and librettists must however take their opportunities where they can find them, and this commission came from the San Francisco Opera. This was, then, to be an “opera” in the traditional “opera house” sense of the term. The then general director of the San Francisco opera, David Gockley, gave his view of what Dream of the Red Chamber should be when, according to the Guardian, he
expressed his desire for ‘a lyrical, harmonically consonant piece with a lot of Chinese folk colour’.
He was further quoted in the South China Morning Post:
What I have tried to do with composers, including Bright Sheng, is to get them to write in a neo-romantic musical style that the public will embrace right from the start, without [the audience] having to take university courses.
And that is what composer Bright Sheng delivered. The Los Angeles Times used the term “neo-Puccini”. It might have been that. I thought I heard echoes of Korngold and some Alfano (Cyrano de Bergerac). According the the San Francisco Chronicle, Sheng said he had been inspired by Tosca, Otello and the Magic Flute.
The creative objectives the work has set for itself are ambitious: setting a classic Chinese text in an accessible Western classical musical idiom. Taken on its own, the opera’s music is melodic, lush and expressive. But if Dream of the Red Chamber is an opera of the future, then the future looks rather like the past.
The Los Angeles Times opened its review with
The world needs more Chinese opera. China needs it too. China has some 29 opera houses. Only Italy, Germany, the U.S. and Russia have more. China has more architecturally notable new ones, such as the late architect Zaha Hadid’s spectacular Guangzhou Opera House, than any other country. But China does not yet have enough of its own notable opera to fill them. America can help.
Is “Chinese opera” a neo-romantic rendition of a Chinese story? And in English, no less. It might well be that an ethnically-Chinese composer and ethnically-Chinese librettist might be more faithful to elements of Chinese, culture, thought and philosophy than otherwise, but faithfulness per se is not the point of opera; if it were, then few of the world’s greatest operas could be performed.
Something recognizable as “Chinese opera in the Western tradition” may well arise, as it has in pop music, literature, theatre and film, but it seems—on the face of it—unlikely that it will emanate from the United States.
Dream of the Red Chamber appears, therefore, to have started out with some objectives that are at least partially incompatible: opera, but accessible; Chinese, but “international”; Chinese, but in English. The choice of subject, furthermore, is immensely challenging: there are reasons why operatic renditions of War & Peace struggle to retain places in the standard repertoire.
The libretto lets the music down to some extent. Although the story seems almost Italian with its political and imperial intrigue, scheming relatives, a dominant mother and a doomed tenor-soprano-mezzo love triangle (there is even a scene of veiled mistaken identity à la Don Carlo), the libretto emphasizes situation rather than drama and character development. Emotions were on the whole declaimed rather than felt and situations explained. Dai Yu is sickly, yet her condition seems to have little relevance to the plot: she is no Violetta or Mimì. These may well be functions of the original novel, but musical theatre has its own exigencies.
One reason people keep on returning to the war-horses of the standard operatic—and theatrical—repertoire is the room these works give for interpretation. One of the tests of Dream of the Red Chamber will not be that future performances are just the same, but rather that they are different. But by hitching the work to some vision of intrinsic “Chineseness”, by making the production and staging such an integral part of the work, the room for interpretation is much diminished.
But there are passages in Dream of the Red Chamber which prove that it can all be done. One is the soaring love duet between Bao Yu and Dai Yu which contains lines whose poetic words matched the music and the emotion:
Like two rivers bound for one ocean,
like two stars in one constellation…
Similarly, Dai Yu’s final aria was in plaintive harmony with the chorus while the final chorus ends on an unusual and moving pianissimo.
To judge a new work against the history of the entire genre is arguably rather harsh and unfair. For new plays, musicals or films, a pleasant or thought-provoking evening is usually the maximum expectation; one rarely asks whether the play will still be running a decade, to say nothing of a century, later.
But one should evaluate works, whether musical theatre or novels, by the standards they set for themselves. To their credit, the composer, librettist and indeed, director, set for themselves here the highest of standards. And in several instances, they arguably achieved them. But I was left wondering what Dream of the Red Chamber would have been like had it been undertaken as a musical, or had the Sheng and Hwang allowed themselves to stray further from the novel, or had it been written for a Chinese rather than American audience or had at least been sung in Chinese.
One should never however let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Dream of the Red Chamber is an ambitious work that deserves to be seen, heard, pondered and discussed, especially when it can muster a cast as well-attuned to the work as this one.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.