An American Opera Company Adapts China’s ‘War and Peace’
SAN FRANCISCO — It was a week before the premiere, and Bright Sheng, the composer and co-librettist of the new opera “Dream of the Red Chamber,” was already bracing for the backlash.
To create his version of Cao Xueqin’s sprawling 18th-century classic about the decline of an aristocratic family in imperial China, Mr. Sheng reduced the book to its bare bones. The novel — over 2,400 pages in its standard English translation, twice as long as “War and Peace” — is told in a mere two hours and 20 minutes. Hundreds of characters have been cut, leaving just eight main figures in the final show, which runs from Saturday through Sept. 29 at San Francisco Opera.
曹雪芹这部洋洋洒洒的经典小说创作于18世纪，讲述帝制时代中国一个贵族家庭的衰落。为了把它搬上舞台，盛宗亮将全书缩减到只剩骨架。这部小说的标准英译本超过2400页，是《战争与和平》(War and Peace)的两倍，歌剧要在两小时20分钟内讲完它的故事。几百个人物被删去，最终的歌剧里只剩下8个主要人物。该剧将在旧金山歌剧院上演，自周六开始，持续公演到9月29日。
The book’s many die-hard fans may not be pleased.
“You can’t win with this, no matter what you do,” Mr. Sheng said after a recent rehearsal. “People will love you or hate you.”
Such are the perils of adapting any beloved story. And to many in the Chinese-speaking world, “Dream of the Red Chamber” is that and more, widely regarded as a masterpiece — if not the masterpiece — of Chinese literature. Realizing the inevitable weight of expectations, the San Francisco Opera enlisted a team of creative heavyweights, all of Asian descent, to create the $3 million production.
Mr. Sheng wrote the libretto with David Henry Hwang, the Tony Award-winning playwright. Stan Lai, an acclaimed playwright and director, has staged the work, and Tim Yip, who won an Academy Award for art direction for his work on Ang Lee’s film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” has designed the sets and costumes. The opera will be sung in English and accompanied by supertitles in English and Chinese.
“We wanted it to have its own authenticity as a piece of operatic storytelling,” said Matthew Shilvock, San Francisco Opera’s new general director. “But we also wanted it to be something that would resonate with people who grew up with and love the novel, as well.”
A number of Chinese-Western amalgam operas have been created in recent years. Many of these, including the Metropolitan Opera’s “First Emperor,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Madame White Snake” and even the San Francisco Opera’s “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” have struggled to enter the repertory.
近年来，有很多中西糅合的歌剧被搬上舞台。其中不少要想成为经典保留剧目都很困难，包括大都会歌剧院上演的《秦始皇》、获得普利策奖的《白蛇传》、甚至还有旧金山歌剧院的《接骨师之女》(The Bonesetter’s Daughter)。
Still, Mr. Shilvock said, presenting new work “also has great potential to attract excitement in a way that the standard repertory piece doesn’t always.”
With “Dream of the Red Chamber,” the company is seeking to tap a growing interest in Western-style opera among Asians and Asian-Americans in the Bay Area. The production arrives eight years after San Francisco Opera’s highly successful premiere run of “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” based on Amy Tan’s novel about a Chinese-American family.
“‘Bonesetter’s Daughter’ was very, very popular and it was certainly the most popular new work that we did here during my time,” said David Gockley, who retired in July as the company’s general director. “Its success caused me to have my ear to the ground to locate another piece that would be interesting for our Chinese population.”
Not long after “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” the Minneapolis-based Chinese Heritage Foundation approached Mr. Gockley about adapting “Dream of the Red Chamber.”
《接骨师之女》之后不久，坐落在明尼阿波利斯的中国传统基金会(Chinese Heritage Foundation)和戈克利联系，商讨改编《红楼梦》事宜。
“I, of course, Googled it to death,” he said, “and learned more about it from members of our Chinese community here in San Francisco. The response I got was that there is not a Chinese or a Chinese-American that has not grown up and had some contact with this piece in some form.”
Mr. Gockley turned to Mr. Sheng, a composer known for his skillful synthesis of traditional Chinese and Western musical styles. Even before signing on, the Shanghai-born Mr. Sheng was already what he called a “dilettante Redologist,” a nickname for the literary scholars who have dedicated their lives to studying the novel. Having read the book several times — first as a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, when it was banned — he understood the scale of the task.
Deciding to focus on the central love triangle, Mr. Sheng was able to persuade Mr. Hwang, who had rebuffed initial requests, to write the libretto.
“In the beginning, it just seemed like there were a lot of ways we could get it wrong,” Mr. Hwang said. “Really, the thing that convinced me was that Bright had a vision about how to boil the story down.”
“Plus,” he added jokingly, “Bright grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China, and I grew up in L.A., so his will is stronger than mine.”
Mr. Yip, the designer, who previously worked on a Chinese television adaptation of the novel, has sought to create a dreamlike effect with the sets. Painted panels rise and fall to create different patterns, like a loom — a reference to Cao Xueqin’s family business, making silk brocade for the emperor.
The opera revolves around the mythological Stone and Flower, who come down to earth from heaven. Stone becomes Bao Yu (in San Francisco, the tenor Yijie Shi), the spoiled heir to the wealthy Jia family, and Flower becomes Dai Yu (the soprano Pureum Jo), a sickly, poetic young woman who comes to live with the Jias after the death of her mother.
Bao Yu and Dai Yu are in love, but his mother orders him to marry Bao Chai (the mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts), a beautiful heiress, to pay back the Jia family’s debt to the emperor. Bao Yu is defiant, but his love for Dai Yu is ultimately thwarted in a bride swap during a climactic wedding scene. In the final sequence, Dai Yu departs in a mournful chorus: “When spring has fled, and beauty is spent, who cares for the fallen petals? Both flower and maiden return to dust.”
Mr. Lai, the director, said: “Impermanence and the fleeting quality of life — these are things that are very Buddhist and quintessentially Chinese. The biggest challenge was expressing these kinds of ideas for a Western audience in the limited moments you have.”
In March, the opera will travel to the Hong Kong Arts Festival, which co-produced the work, and may tour elsewhere in Asia. Plans are already underway to translate the libretto into the classical Chinese in which the novel was originally written.
明年3月，该剧将在香港艺术节(Hong Kong Arts Festival)上演出，该艺术节也是这部剧的联合制作者。之后可能在亚洲的其他地方巡演。目前已在推进计划，把剧本翻译成中国古典白话——这本小说最初就是用这种语言写的。
The opera may then face a tougher, more discerning audience among those even more familiar with the book, but Mr. Sheng seemed unfazed.
“If you ask 10 different Redologists what the novel is about, they would give you 10 different answers,” he said. “And if anyone asks me what this opera is about, I’ll say it’s a story of a love triangle. That’s it.”