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What's behind SF Opera's Chinese Opera Kick?

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Tim Yip, Bright Sheng and Stan Lai: Three of the key creatives behind SF Opera's new world premiere 'Dream of the Red Chamber' (Photo: Scott Wall)

Why has Asia — and China in particular — held such a fascination for western opera composers and companies? The “Exotic East” is the backdrop for many classic operas, from Vivaldi’s obscure Teuzzone of 1719 to Puccini’s famous Turandot that premiered in 1926, each featuring complicated love plots set in the Chinese court.

China continues to provide a framework for contemporary American operas. We’ve seen a rash of them over the past decade, including recent revivals of John Adams’ Nixon in China in San Francisco, New York, and San Diego, and the world premieres of several Chinese-themed works, such as Tan Dun’s First Emperor (2006) at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and Zhou Long’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Madame White Snake of 2010 at the defunct Opera Boston.

Supertitles in Dream of the Red Chamber
Supertitles in action for San Francisco Opera’s Dream of the Red Chamber. (Photo: Cory Weaver)

And now comes the latest world premiere from San Francisco Opera (SF Opera) — Dream of the Red Chamber. The work, sung in English with Chinese supertitles and based on an epic 18th century novel by Cao Xueqin, tells the story of a courtly love triangle between an aristocratic young man and two very different women against the backdrop of a crumbling dynasty.

Dream is SF Opera’s second Chinese-themed world premiere in less than a decade. The first, in 2008, was Bonesetter’s Daughter, based on Amy Tan’s bestselling novel of the same name and composed by Stewart Wallace. “The Chinese-inspired works in recent years speak in part to the rich literary and cultural heritage of China,” says SF Opera’s general director Matthew Shilvock of the trend among major American opera companies for chinoiserie. “Stories like Dream of the Red Chamber are incredible epics of humanity that speak to us with the power of the Norse legends behind Wagner’s Ring, and the European literary traditions of authors from Euripides to Victor Hugo and beyond.”

But “great stories” are only part of the equation. The company’s programming choices are also being driven by commercial considerations. Bonesetter’s Daughter attracted near-capacity audiences throughout its run, so it’s no surprise that the company is looking to replicate and extend its box office mojo with Dream, particularly among the growing Asian opera audience, half of which identify as Chinese. Over the past couple of years, SF Opera has seen the size of that audience grow, from 11% to 12.5%.


Strong talent pipeline

An important part of capturing those potential new customers means highlighting actual Asian talent. This, as opposed to putting a bunch of white performers in “yellowface” in works written, staged and designed by predominantly or entirely caucasian creative teams, as has been overwhelmingly the case throughout opera history. “Asian Americans are very used to seeing white people cast in Asian and Asian American roles,” says Rachel Lem, a board member for The Bravo! Club, SF Opera’s young people’s association. “Not only does this decrease opportunities for people of color, it also tends to result in offensive yellowface. I hesitate to attend productions of Madama Butterfly or The Mikado, as I don’t wish to sit through hours of white actors in “Asian” makeup and wigs.”

That’s why SF Opera has assembled a star-studded Asian production crew and cast for this project — albeit one that extends beyond China: The man behind the music is acclaimed Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng; Tony Award-winning dramatist David Henry Hwang co-wrote the libretto with the composer; sets and costumes are the handiwork of Tim Yip, who designed the hit movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon; and Stan Lai, a world-class Taiwanese director, is staging the show.

Pureum Jo and Yijie Shi
Soprano Pureum Jo (Dai Yu) and tenor Yijie Shi (Bao Yu) in rehearsal for San Francisco Opera’s Dream of the Red Chamber. (Photo: Cory Weaver)

The work also gives SF Opera the opportunity to hire Asian opera singers. Key performers in Dream include Korean soprano Pureum Jo, a Juilliard and Houston Grand Opera alum, and Chinese tenor Yijie Shi, who has sung at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and at Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Thankfully the pipeline of singers is particularly strong these days — though American companies tend to cast a sweeping net that encompasses performers from many different Asian ethnicities when it comes to hiring singers for specifically Chinese-themed operas. “In the last 15 years, there has been an incredible increase in the number of Asian singers participating in U.S. training programs and appearing on US stages,” Shilvock says. “It used to be the case that Asian artists would first come to a U.S. master’s or doctoral program. Now we are inviting a number of singers each year into our programs directly from Asia as operatic performances, teaching and activity has seen a huge increase, particularly in China.”

Fertile ground for cross-pollination

It’s not just opera education that’s blossoming in China. “What is exciting at the moment is the huge growth of operatic activity within China,” Shilvock says. “The building of so many incredible opera houses and the development of a rich tradition of performance that integrates western repertoire with Chinese opera.”

Western operas have long had a following among Chinese audiences, a trend that began with European opera troupes that visited Shanghai back in the late 1800s. In recent years, opera houses designed by internationally renowned architects have been springing up in many major Chinese cities, such as the Guangzhou Opera House, designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, and the Harbin Opera House, designed by the Beijing-headquartered firm, MAD Studio. And the appetite for European warhorses abounds in these venues; the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing regularly schedules works by the likes of Bizet, Verdi, and Wagner.

With all of this activity, a certain amount of cross-pollination is natural — and operas that attempt to fuse eastern and western traditions aren’t only being seen on U.S. stages. The Chinese began writing their own hybrid western-style operas as early as 1940s with Yan Jinxuan’s The White Haired Girl. And Chinese-American pieces have been known to cross the Pacific, like Zhou Long’s English-language Madame White Snake, which was performed in Beijing after its run in Boston. That opera, based on an ancient folktale, has even outlived its opera company, and returns to Boston this weekend in a run at Emerson College.

Bright Sheng and Hyona Kim
Composer Bright Sheng with mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim (Lady Wang) backstage during SF Opera’s rehearsals for Dream of the Red Chamber. (Photo: Cory Weaver)

Dream itself is going on to a staging at the 45th annual Hong Kong Arts Festival next year and is being translated into mandarin to ready it for further international exposure beyond 2017. This is an accomplishment for any new opera, since it’s always a challenge for a contemporary work to receive additional productions after its world premiere. And it’s big win for SF Opera, which has put on eight new operas in the last decade, but only this one and Philip Glass’ Appomattox have so far gone on to the possibility of a second life after its world premiere.

It’s notable that Dream is having its Asian premiere next year in Hong Kong alongside famed Czech composer Leos Janáček’s The Makropulos Case. That work, a staple of western opera houses, is only now being seen by audiences on the other side of the Pacific — nearly a century since it made its debut in Brno in what is now the Czech Republic. That it will only take Dream six months to travel from San Francisco to Hong Kong speaks to how much this classic story resonates with Chinese audiences as well as the international bankability of the production team.

San Francisco audiences are equally excited about Dream. “It is such a significant work of world literature and they are terrific artists” says Wei Ming Dariotis, an Asian American studies professor at San Francisco State University. “Chinese American culture is part of our heritage and a rich source of inspiration.”


San Francisco Opera’s Dream of the Red Chamber plays Saturday, Sep.10 – Thursday, Sep. 29 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco.

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