Taming an Epic

Bright Sheng's DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER arrives at San Francisco Opera.
by Georgia Rowe. 

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Composer/librettist Sheng 
My will is stronger than someone who grew up in L.A.” —SHENG 
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Costume designs by Tim Yip for the characters of Bao Yu (above) and Bao Chai (below)
© Tim Yip/San Francisco Opera
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© Tim Yip/San Francisco Opera 

SPANNING FIVE VOLUMES AND NEARLY 3,000 PAGES, Dream of the Red Chamber might seem a daunting choice as source material for an opera. Scholars devote entire careers to untangling Cao Xue-qin’s densely plotted eighteenth-century epic, considered one of the four great novels of Chinese literature. 

Composer Bright Sheng was twelve years old when he first read Cao’s masterpiece, which charts the lives of the aristocratic Jia clan. It was during the Cultural Revolution, he recalls, and Dream of the Red Chamber was banned in China. As he established his career, Sheng often dreamed of adapting the novel. “But it was so lengthy and intricately complicated,” he says, “I knew it would take a lot of deep thinking and courage to actually do it.”

This month, Sheng’s dream becomes reality; Dream of the Red Chamber, with a score by Sheng and an English-language libretto by Sheng and acclaimed playwright David Henry Hwang, has its world premiere on September 10 at San Francisco Opera. The production is directed by Stan Lai and designed by Tim Yip. George Manahan conducts a cast featuring tenor Yijie Shi (Bao Yu/Divine Stone), who was Iago in Rossini’s Otello earlier this year in Barcelona; South Korean soprano Pureum Jo (Dai Yu/Crimson Pearl Flower), a Houston Grand Opera studio artist whose previous roles include Pamina in Houston and the title role in Toshio Hosokawa’s Matsukaze at the Spoleto and Lincoln Center Festivals; and mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts (Bao Chai), who sang the title role in San Francisco’s Carmen earlier this year.

Dream marks the forty-third career world premiere, and the eighth SFO commission, for David Gockley, who retired as the company’s general director in July. The city has a robust Chinese–American community, notes Gockley, who commissioned the Stewart Wallace–Amy Tan opera The Bonesetter’s Daughter, based on Tan’s novel, in 2008. Dream is “a quintessential Chinese setting,” he says. “Every Chinese person knows this story, which is rich in psychological, historical and social implications.” With support from the Chinese Heritage Foundation in Minneapolis, Gockley invited Sheng and Hwang to compose the opera.

Sheng agreed; Hwang had doubts. “Initially, I turned it down,” he admits. “I felt it was sort of an impossible task.” Ultimately, Sheng prevailed. “I grew up during the Cultural Revolution,” says the composer. “My will is stronger than someone who grew up in L.A.”

Sheng and Hwang began by cutting huge swaths of the novel, focusing on the central love triangle between Bao Yu, Dai Yu and Bao Chai and employing secondary themes of politics and prejudice as backdrop. “To that, we added a couple of other elements from the book,” says Hwang, a Tony Award-winner for M. Butterfly and librettist of such works as 1,000 Airplanes on the Roof and The Voyage, both by Philip Glass; Ainadamar, by Osvaldo Golijov; and An American Soldier, by Huang Ruo.

“One is the sort of spiritual frame through which the Stone and the Flower wish to be incarnated as humans to experience love. The show poses the philosophical question ‘Is love possible in the material world?’ We also explored another thread from the novel, which is generally regarded as autobiographical—the intrigue resulting from the fall of a great family, which then becomes a kind of metaphor for the decline of the Qing dynasty.”

Hwang found the novel’s reversals of fortune particularly engaging. “We’re looking at a family that represented the pinnacle of sophistication in old society, who are now kind of on their last legs,” he says. “When we meet them at the top of the opera they still own everything, but it’s sort of a façade, in that the family owes a major debt to the Emperor. How to resolve this question of the debt becomes the big plot point, both in the novel and in our adaptation. In that sense, it’s sort of Downton Abbey-like—a grand old family that’s trying to keep up appearances.”

Shanghai-born Sheng, who has spent much of his career in the U.S., worked on the score for two years. “I got up every day and sat at the piano and wrote,” says the composer, who has written one other evening-length opera, Madame Mao. “All of my brain—even during the time when I was not writing—was thinking about the music throughout.” He took inspiration from Prokofiev, who adapted War and Peace in his fifties. “As I was approaching the sixth decade of my life, I thought, ‘If anyone could do this, I would be at the right moment to take on the challenge.’”

The score draws on Western traditions, he adds—with marked Chinese influences. “I am one hundred percent American and one hundred percent Chinese. So my music is naturally influenced by my life experiences.” Paramount, says the composer, was his wish “to show off the beauty of the singing voice.” 

Lai, engaged to animate the world of a novel remarkable for its specificity and otherworldliness—Cao’s tome, he notes, “has mentions of over 100 shades of colors”—worked with Yip, the Oscar-winning art director of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, to create an enveloping mise-en-scène. “To me, this story represents everything Chinese, in a very opulent, sophisticated way,” says Lai. “We’ve attempted to create that opulence in a grand Chinese complex.”

Perhaps more surprising, says Hwang, is the story’s contemporary resonance. “We’re at a moment in the world today when it seems clear that the U.S.–China relationship will be one of the major stories of the twenty-first century. These are two cultures that are increasingly dependent on one another, and who are either going to have to learn to work together or face a terrible reckoning on both sides. I think the opportunity to become familiar with one of the principal narratives of Chinese culture is one reason to tell this story now. It relates to the current moment of great inequality that we’re going through. We’re looking at an end of an era of wealth and privilege for the novel’s family, which I think has some relationship to the inequality that exists in America today.” spacer 

Georgia Rowe is Opera News’s chief San Francisco correspondent. 

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